Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Color Purple

It is safe to say that The Color Purple does not resemble any other film in Steven Spielberg's filmography up to this point.  His two most "serious" films before this both involved aliens, and their big ideas were much more metaphorical than they were literal.  The Color Purple was a gamble, both for Spielberg and for the studio that put a young white guy in charge of perhaps one of the quintessential stories about African-American women, and while I think that any film has to be judged entirely by what's up on screen, it's hard to forget about this background while you watch it - Spielberg was less than 30 years old when he shot it, and if the source material wasn't so strong, and so beloved, I'm not sure it would have made it out of pre-production.

Let me back up a step and say this - there is still, to this day, a (fairly low-level, but still present) controversy about whether Spielberg should have been picked to make this film at all.  And there are sort of two parts to this.  On the one hand, Spielberg is unquestionably one of the great filmmakers of his time, and specifically one who exhibits copious amounts of empathy for his subjects.  So of course he is (and was) just as capable of making this film as anyone.  But on the other hand, given that Hollywood still has a real dearth of black voices behind the camera, people whose own lived-in experiences are rarely allowed to come through on screen, it is at least somewhat of a missed opportunity that the studio settled on someone who didn't totally feel this material in their bones, at the very core of their being.  Because this is a story about black women, and black women directors of real renown are unicorns in Hollywood.  But we got Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's novel, and that's all I've got to work with, so enough grab-assing around, let's dive in.

14-year-old Celie Harris (played, as an adult, by Whoopi Goldberg) has already been twice impregnated by her lout of a father when she is essentially sold to Mister Johnson (Danny Glover) to be his wife/live-in maid and help take care of his three children by his previous wife.  Her younger sister Nettie comes to live with them for a while after running away from her father, but after Mister tries to rape Nettie too, she is kicked out of the house and Mister cuts off any contact between the two girls.

Everyone grows older and Mister's youngest child, Harpo, knocks up and marries the willful Sofia (Oprah Winfrey).  Sofia's stubbornness, the thing that gives her her unique spark, is also her ultimate downfall when she hits a local white woman and is sent to prison for eight years - she emerges from imprisonment prematurely grey and broken in spirit, employed as a servant to the very same woman who she hit.  In the meantime the mistress that Mister keeps a torch burning for, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), comes to stay with him for a while, and what starts out as a mutually antagonistic relationship between Celie and Shug soon turns to friendship and eventually (mostly by implication) mutual romantic love.  Shug eventually leaves and the next time she returns she has a husband, Grady (Bennet Guillory), disappointing both Mister and Celie.  With Shug's help, Celie discovers that her sister has been sending her letters for years that Mister has been confiscating - Nettie is working as a missionary in Africa, and both of Celie's children are with her.

At dinner with the family after discovering the letters, Celie finally breaks Mister's psychological hold on her, and tells him she is leaving with Shug and Grady.  Free of Mister's hold, Celie opens up a haberdashery in Memphis, although she is unable to solve her sister's problem - Nettie can't return to America since she can't convince US immigration officials that she is a citizen.  Mister, a broken-down drunk after having lost everything in his life (including Harpo, who ran off along with Celie) has one final decent act in him, and takes his entire savings to Washington to convince the government to allow Nettie and Celie's children back into the country.  The film ends as Celie is reunited with her sister and her children for the first time in decades, with Mister looking on from a distance.

The Color Purple is basically the same length as 1941, and while the latter was one of the most painful slogs I have ever had the misfortune of watching, this film absolutely breezed past.  Given a sprawling, decades-long narrative, Spielberg manages to condense it down to its crystalline essence, and he does so without sacrificing the arcs of several characters.  All three of the major female characters (Celie, Sofia and Shug) are given something interesting to do (Shug has a strained relationship with her preacher father because of her sexually adventurous youth, and her redemption in his eyes takes up the back half of her arc), and he even manages to work in Nettie's sojourn in Africa so that it fits seamlessly within the plot of the film.

But....(there's always a but)....the tone of this film, for long stretches, is just really, really off.  Some significant portion of the blame, and it's weird to say this considering what an important creative force he was in getting the film made, has to go to Quincy Jones, whose score is really brutally awful - light when it should be heavy, treacly when it should be subtle, the whole thing should have been scrapped (and maybe would have been, if Jones wasn't an EP on the film).  The one part where his gifts as a musician shine are in the late-film scenes set in Africa, where his approximation of African tribal music give the film a real driving tension that it is almost entirely missing elsewhere (Spielberg intercuts some sort of ritual involving Celie's children with Celie's almost-murder of Mister that is interrupted by Shug, set to Jones' tribal music, and it is easily the most tense moment in the movie.)  Celie spends a decent part of her adolescence being raped, first by her father and later by Mister, and the film only scratches the surface of what this means, cutting in way too many hijinx-y scenes, set to Jones' unsubtle wacky music.  It does a better job in the back half of taking everything a little bit more seriously, but those early comic scenes left a bad taste that lingered.

The film makes a fairly subtle case for Celie being a lesbian - from the standpoint of 2013, it's clear that that's what Celie is, and if this movie had been made now it would have been played up quite a bit more.  For whatever reason Spielberg gives a light touch to what I imagine is a bigger theme in the book (you can often tell, in a work that is adapted from a novel, when a ghost of a plot thread in a movie has been whittled down from a much bigger thread in its source) and this choice, probably more than anything, reflects some of Spielberg's reticence as a white male filmmaker to really tackle an issue that was outside of his comfort zone.  He certainly never suggests otherwise, but Celie's lesbianism is only really present at the very edges of the story (Shug probably isn't a lesbian, just someone who is sexually adventurous and flexible, but it's pretty clear that Celie is not attracted to men).

The best part of The Color Purple, by a fairly wide margin (and I say this not to damn the movie at all, but because this part was just that great) is Whoopi Goldberg's performance as Celie.  To use a cliched term, I genuinely found it to be a revelation - Goldberg entirely subsumes her boisterous personality within Celie's very small and contained character.  Her own public persona eventually overwhelmed her ability to play a character like Celie again, but if it was literally the only film she had ever acted in, it would still be a towering achievement worth mentioning in the same breath as some of the classic film performances.  I can't say enough about how good she is - the film goes out of its way to talk about how ugly Celie is supposed to be (which I gather is in the novel) but her performance is so charmingly sincere and unguarded that it is never in question why Shug falls for her.  Oprah is also quite good as Sofia, more for the front half of her performance (the "Baddest Bitch" part) than the back half, where she sort of loses the thread when Sofia is supposed to be broken, and no longer really has a good hook in the character.  No one else really stands out - I found Margaret Avery mostly too big, and was somewhat surprised to find she had been nominated for an Oscar.  Glover's role is really thankless, having to pretty much be an awful brute until his last-minute change of heart, and he does the best he can with a somewhat underwritten character, but whatever charm Mister is supposed to possess never really comes through, and it's hard to understand why someone like Shug ever came under his spell (it's kind of weird that Glover kept getting cast as heavies when he was younger, given that he practically invented the phrase, "twinkle in his eye" - he was also the bad guy in Witness.)  Willard Pugh, God bless him, is just awful as Harpo, a nothing of a nothing performance that comes dangerously close to Stepin Fetchit territory on several occasions.

So then there's another major problem in this film, one that has been endlessly dissected, and that is how it portrays black men.  Walker's novel is, I gather, a story about how both racism and patriarchal attitudes within their own community affected black women in early 20th century America (and, by extension, continue to affect them to the present day).  The unfortunate side-effect of this is that the men in this film are, by and large, pretty cartoonishly awful, either irredeemable louts (as Celie and Nettie's father, Mister and Mister's father all are) or hen-pecked losers (as Harpo is).  While that may have come across a little more subtly on the page, onscreen it ends up seeming pretty profoundly, well, racist.  So much of the legacy of post-Civil War era civil rights battles revolves around the fear that white people had that black men were uncouth, savage brutes who were coming for their women and, well....that's sort of what we have here.  Rapists, abusers, and lazy bums.  On some level I could understand if someone considers this a deal-breaker  for this film - from my standpoint, I thought the women were strong and interesting enough characters that I still considered it a worthwhile film to see.

And that's the bottom line, I guess, for anyone who has gotten this far - on balance, I liked the Color Purple. The parts that I liked I really liked, and the parts that I didn't like I was able to look past.  I don't think this is his most accomplished film by a long shot, and it's certainly not his crowning achievement.  But as a young filmmaker's first foray into truly serious subject matter, it's altogether solid, and is probably the film in this marathon so far that I'm most glad I did eventually catch up with.  I've been thinking about it since yesterday, and even though not everything worked, and some things were downright miscalculations, it's a film that I think will stick with me.

A few more loose odds and ends:

Spielberg really has very little interest in exploring gender roles in any sort of complex way.  Mister tries to make breakfast for Shug and he totally botches it, and the whole thing is played for laughs.  Celie then does the job instead and cooks up a gigantic, perfectly-cooked breakfast right afterwards.  There's a pretty obvious implication being made here for the audience, and it is extremely reductive.  Someone who was a bit more sociologically aware might have made something more interesting of this scene.

The old lady makeup/hair on Oprah is awful.  Just as she loses the thread of her character after she gets out of prison, the film drops the ball by putting her in such a stupid, stupid wig.

Spielberg's signifiers of Africa (elephants, zebras, savannah, tribal music) are awfully cliche.  It places the audience in space just fine, but it's also a "Really?" type scene.  Nettie traveled to Africa from America.  The chance that she ended up in the Serengeti, which is all the way on the eastern part of the continent, is somewhere between slim and none.

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