The Color Purple ★★★★

Confronted by abuse at every turn in a world that already views her as subhuman by default, Whoopi Goldberg's Celie (magnificently cast in her first film) longs to reconnect with her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) after her husband forbids them to see each other. The years pass in telling increments but sometimes with touches of unexpected bliss.* Watered-down? Perhaps, but Steven Spielberg's film of Alice Walker's novel remains subversive by the standards of the Hollywood literary adaptation and moreover, it makes an incredible case for Spielberg's elastic brilliance as a director, filling the screen with indelible images and utter conviction. His only serious problem is a strange determination to inject brief slapstick scenes in a story whose tone absolutely doesn't warrant that specific kind of levity. Otherwise, the characterizations and performances are superb and, in a film that toys so much with mythological urgency, remarkably believable. It also doesn't hedge in order to make white audiences comfortable, which is presumably one reason it has remained so popular over the decades. Should a black director have been permitted to take on this story? Probably, yes; but Spielberg's handling is still impressively mature and has the fire and intensity of all of his best work; there's absolutely no one else who renders characters, moments, and grand-scale stories -- whether they're about massive happenings or just relations among people -- so fluently.

I understand why acolytes of the novel find the absence of the sex scene so disappointing but what we do get is much more direct than I expected from what I'd heard about the criticisms; and there's a sense in which Spielberg demonstrates respect rather than fear by not going further in this context. Like Jonathan Demme in Melvin and Howard, he wields this as a familiar story about people and a context forgotten by American film, at least in this era; small gestures attain larger-than-life quality, and the free-flowing emotions of even the somewhat incredible "comeuppance" in the last act feel richly earned, even cathartic, a representation and a full-on rejection of "otherness." It's all very moving, which is not said lightly. The time (its distance and passage), the scenery, but mostly the people: it's all right there, and it sings out.

* (This, not Temple of Doom, is Spielberg's best shot as a musical.)

Nathan liked this review