Tuesday, 18 January 2011
The Color Purple
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover,
By Alan Bacchus
You take the good with bad with Steven Spielberg, especially with The Color Purple, his first ‘serious’ movies, a movie outside of sci-fi/thriller/adventure genre he’d made his name in. Though Spielberg treads for the first time in such important subject matter like race, poverty, abuse in the deep south, his trademark magic realist sentimentality inadvertantly conflicts in almost every scene and the tragic events which befall Alice Walker’s main character Celie.
It’s a large scale, epic story told over a period of 30 years or so from the point of view of a woman scorned with almost every conceivable act of maltreatment one could inflict on another human being. The opening shows Celie giving birth to a child conceived with her father, then taken away from her arms, presumably to be given away or even thrown into the wintery wild to die. The core relationship for Celie is with her devoted sister, Nettie, the only person who ever loved her. And so when Celie is married off to a dispicable farm owner Albert (Danny Glover), she goes from frying pan to the fire. Albert’s dominance is even more aggressive than her father's, eventually kicking Nettie out Celie's life never to receive contact with her ever again.
The rest of Celie’s life is one long physical and psychological beatdown by her tyrannical husband. It’s not until Albert’s love-struck former companion, sophisticated lounge singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), comes to town does Celie find a confidente. Gradually over the course of 20 years Celie’s grows into her own skin and embraces her own womanhood, and some degree a lesbian sexual orientation she doesn’t fully understand, nor reconcile.
As I rewatched The Color Purple in high definition Blu-Ray, it was same the odd contradictory experience as always. As usual there’s a superlative inventiveness in mise-en-scene in almost every scene. Spielberg’s ability to choreograph the actors and the camera with dance-like precision in order to highlight every emotional beat to the audience is astounding. There’s a palpable classical approach reminiscent of his main influences John Ford, Michael Curtiz and even Alfred Hitchcock. Watch the scene when Celie and Nettie are handclapping in their room early on, a scene which plays out without ever seeing Celie, instead visible only as shadows on the wall. Or the emotionally-charged finale where Celie meets up with Nettie for the first time. It’s a John Ford moment ripped right out of The Searchers and a dozen other of his classics.
And yet, the concerted effort to be visually clever hogties the scenes. Spielberg’s formality skews the emotions toward artificial melodrama. Spielberg's enthusiasm runs wild and unabated, overdramatizing many of the key beats. The separation of Celie and Nettie for instance, when Albert drags her kicking and screaming from his farm, with Nettie screaming with engrossed exagerration “Why!!!? Why!!!?”
Most of the supporting characters, in particular the men, are characterized without an ounce of depth or colour. Both Celie’s father and husband Albert are indignified beyond belief as immature tail chasing children who lose their marbles and act like cavemen in pursuit of their women. Even Harpo and Sophia are characterized as a cartoonish antidote to Celie’s quiet introspection.
Spielberg does make up for Sophia by giving her the most extreme and emotionally devastating character arc in the picture. Her transition from a headstrong independent woman, to a broken down housemaid and shadow of her former self is in our face, but dramatized by the best scenes in the film and the best performance as well – Oprah Winfrey. Watching poor Sophia leave her Christmas family reunion to drive her upper class matron back to her home wrings out so much emotional pain.
Miraculously Spielberg, despite drowning us with tears, manages to execute a stunning emotional finale. A series of scenes and actions which lead to the reunification of Nettie and Celie: Celie’s discovery of Nettie’s letters, her confrontation with Albert at the dinner table, Albert’s redemption by engineering Nettie’s return to the country and finally, that John Ford moment I mentioned above when she first see’s Nettie’s car drive up the country road.
Does Spielberg’s blatantly sentimental treatment of such sensitive subject matter betray the gravitas of Walker’s material? I'm still not sure, but either way I will forever be reviled by and inexplicably drawn to this movie.
‘The Color Purple’ is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment