Golden Oldies On the Big Screen Golden Oldies On the Big Screen



For, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’ve never seen Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Color Purple’ in a movie theater … or if you’ve never seen ‘The Color Purple’ … now’s your chance, as Fathom Events brings it to local Cinemark and Megaplex theaters for one day only, Sunday, Feb. 23, at 1 and 5 p.m. My review was published in the Deseret News on Dec. 20, 1985.

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” hardly seems like the kind of story that Steven Spielberg, of all moviemakers, could faithfully turn into a film.

But never underestimate the talent of a popular filmmaker. There was a time when Hitchcock suffered from being too popular with the public, as many critics felt movies that appealed to the masses could not possibly be artistic. And I suspect there will be those who also tear down Spielberg’s “Purple,” complaining that it is too slick and looks very Spielbergian, if you will, and therefore cannot be taken seriously.

And after watching the film, I must admit that his stamp is obvious, that there are somewhat self-conscious artful strains in certain scenes, and there may indeed be a surrealistic edge to it all, especially the end. But none of that bothered me.

Whatever else he is, Spielberg is a master storyteller, and if he’s made “The Color Purple” more accessible to a wide audience by making it his own, well, what’s wrong with that?

The raw material here is powerful to begin with, but add to that superb performances from an incredible ensemble cast, gorgeous photography, a fabulous score by co-producer Quincy Jones and Spielberg’s own storytelling expertise, and you have the makings of a great film.

Whether Spielberg has actually achieved that greatness may be debatable — but if he’s missed, it isn’t by much.


Steven Spielberg gives direction to Whoopi Goldberg on the set of 'The Color Purple' (1985).

Alice Walker’s story, set shortly after the turn of the century, has to do with two sisters: Celie goes from an incestuous relationship with her father (during which she bore two children that he sold) to an abusive, repressive marriage — at age 14 — and Nettie goes to Africa with a missionary family, writing letters of encouragement to her sister, only to have them hidden for years by Celie’s husband.

Though the book offers a fairly equal split, telling the stories in full of both sisters, Spielberg has chosen to focus on Celie, a rather brave choice since that means he must take on the story that offers the most cinematic pitfalls, that of a young girl who becomes a miserable, repressed woman and eventually blossoms into an independent, free-spirited individual.

Had this film been made by another filmmaker, perhaps any other filmmaker, it could easily have been an R-rated foray into all kinds of graphic exploitation. But Spielberg is more discreet than that. And true to his word to the ratings board some years ago when “Poltergeist” was under dispute, at which time he said, “Steven Spielberg doesn’t make R-rated movies,” Spielberg has given us all the information we need to know about the tragedy in Celie’s life — that her father takes advantage of her, that her husband’s sexual advances are extremely brutal, that he beats her, that she eventually has a lesbian encounter that proves to be the first time she realizes love can be tender instead of violent. Yet Spielberg shows none of this explicitly on the screen.

It is perhaps a choice that will be complained about by critics who feel it is too old-fashioned an approach. But I suspect movie audiences will appreciate this over the usual — and easier — more literal approach so many other directors take.

There may also be complaints that the story is female chauvinistic, putting all the men in the film in an extremely unfavorable light. But with all the anti-women cinematic tracts these days, it’s probably about time.


The performances here are incredible. In her film debut, Whoopi Goldberg proves herself an enormous talent, and her Celie is one of the most endearing screen heroines to come along in some time. Oprah Winfrey, a Chicago talk-show host in real life, is also a real scene-stealer as Sofia, a woman who knows how to enjoy life but whose spirit is eventually broken in a racial encounter. And Danny Glover, who has already shown what he can do in a variety of roles — the itinerant sharecropper in “Places in the Heart,” the killer cop in “Witness” and the outraged cowboy in “Silverado” — is excellent as Mister, Celie’s husband.

An interesting sidelight here is how all the characters age so believably. There have been recent films (“Back to the Future,” “Once Upon a Time in America”) where makeup and manner have kept young people from projecting age believably but here everyone is utterly convincing.

Despite the makings of fully tragic soap opera stuff, “The Color Purple” ends on an upbeat note, and as with Celie, we are given a feeling of hope about the future. There’s a lot of tearful material here but overall this is a story of courage and stamina, and the need for self-respect.

And as far as this critic is concerned, Spielberg has made a very special film that deserves a wide audience. And thanks to his name, it just may get it.

“The Color Purple” is rated PG-13 for violence, sex, nudity, profanity.

EDITOR’S ENDNOTE: In the review above I made an observation about Spielberg vowing to never make an R-rated movie; he would, of course, break that vow in 1993 with ‘Schindler’s List.’ And on a trivia note, the film received 11 Academy Award nominations but, surprisingly, Spielberg as director was not among them, and the film won no Oscars, which gave it the dubious distinction of tying 1977’s ‘The Turning Point’ as the most nominated films to win zero awards.)