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Spielberg is not the right person to tell this worthy story about female friendships
on February 6, 2015
Characters in Spielberg movies can operate in the middle of the moral spectrum, can exhibit nuance, and can hold true to their immutable natures while still going on a journey of change—see, for example, Chief Brody in "Jaws"—but it is more common for them to be characterized in extremes, as most of them are in "The Color Purple." Shining heroes and devilish villains are not out of place in, say, Indiana Jones movies, which trade in concepts of good and evil in a world where magic is real and the stakes include the destruction of the world, but in Spielberg's historical films his black and white view of life can feel stifling, arbitrary, and preachy. In "The Color Purple" and in "Schindler's List" no less than in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the story unfolds through a series of good and evil actions committed by characters who are either right or wrong, respectively. To be fair, Oskar Schindler is a flawed hero in the latter movie, and in this film Celie Harris Johnson (Whoopie Goldberg) has one line that suggests complication. This moment occurs early in the movie, when she suggests, perhaps for lack of any other example of male behavior, that a man beat his wife in order to make her more docile. But for the most part, Celie and the other characters in "The Color Purple" have at most two settings, and when they alternate between them it is with a rapidity that is more in service of plot and message than of truth. Spielberg is not obliged to make truthful movies, of course, but in his historical movies he seems to want to have it both ways: he seems to want to say something honest and meaningful, but through characters who are too idealized and abstractified to connect with.
Here, the film opens with an idyllic pastoral scene: young girls playing in a field of flowers. When they step out of the head-high stalks, we see that one of the girls, Celie, is pregnant. Clearly, something is amiss. The next two scenes reveal Celie's painful childbirth, the cruel theft of the infant by her father, and the statement that her father is also the father of her child. The moral lines are very stark, the villain and victim very clear. If only real life had the perfect clarity that it has in Spielberg's versions of it.
At times, of course, it does. There have been, and still are, women like Celie (Whoopie Goldberg), abused and despised and trapped by their deranged fathers or husbands. There have been, and still are, women like Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), unjustly imprisoned or mistreated by their employers because of the color of their skin. But do people bear their circumstances with the saintly, childlike, often bemused patience of Celie, or alternate between Sofia's polar extremes of unbridled confidence and utterly defeated resignation? Some perhaps do, but for most people, life is lived in the middle. There are monsters in the world, like Danny Glover's tyrannical Albert, but do monsters like that ever change in time for a Spielberg-sanctioned happy ending? These characters are simple when they should be rich, and mercurial when they should be static.
That said, if Spielberg's prime objective is to convey a strong, positive message through raw, uplifting emotion, he succeeds. Many have focused on the film's famous march to a church, a big musical number that feels good and creates a neat resolution for a juke joint singer named Shug (Margaret Avery). Yet this is actually a side plot, and not strictly necessary to the core ideas about strong female relationships. In fact, it works against those ideas: Shug is the film's most complicated and interesting on-screen character (an equally intriguing storyline set in Africa exists only on the margins), but in the church she is railroaded into what audiences in 1985 found a crowd-pleasing conformity that, to me, just feels like conformity. The idea that really drives "The Color Purple," and that remains as daring and intense and uncompromising and subversive now as it was then, is that bonds between women have the ability to weather the destructive power that certain men employ to maintain their position of privilege in society. Celie's different but equally strong connections with Sofia, Shug, and a sister who remade herself in Africa are mutually empowering and healing, and the worthiness of this message makes the film worth seeing and talking about in spite of its many missteps.