With Lee Daniels’ The Butler right in the wings, with its prominent role for sometime actress & cultural icon Oprah Winfrey, Nathaniel R has sent us to the far side of her small film career for this week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple from 1985, in which Winfrey made her film debut and snagged an Oscar nomination (two things which Whoopi Goldberg also did with this picture, incidentally).
The film marks the first time that Spielberg attempted to make a serious movie for grown-ups, as odd as it is to think, 28 years later, that the future director of Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln had to prove to a doubting industry that he was capable of directing anything but popcorn entertainment. That being said, I’ve never warmed up to this one, which seems to dubiously prove, if anything that Spielberg couldn’t make adult-themed dramas, not right out of the box, anyway. He frankly wasn’t a very good fit for the material: not simply because he wasn’t black, as was the big complaint at the time and remains a complaint you’ll hear occasionally (honestly, being white probably wasn’t as big a liability for this project as being a man was), but because he was too sentimental. Eight years later, Schindler’s List found the director finally ready to (mostly) choke down his instinct for romanticism, and the director’s very next film after The Color Purple, 1987’s Empire of the Sun, manages the fine balance of indulging in glossy Spielbergisms in a way that supports, rather than undercuts, the underlying gravity of the material.
Bluntly: The Color Purple is too pretty and lush for its own good. This is a story about near-constant suffering of an African-American woman trapped in a rapacious culture and surrounded by abusive men, and Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau (the fifth of their six collaborations) fall into the trap of constantly wrapping this material in dappled, picturesque shots: a conversation about systematic rape takes place amidst warmly backlit sheets gently floating in the wind; a proud woman’s humiliation at the hands of a daffy white woman is set against the backdrop of a small American town pulled right out of Norman Rockwell. Which makes it a particularly thorny candidate for an exercise like this, where the goal is to pick a shot that is both attractive (and that’s damn near everything here: Daviau’s work was never more painterly) and an appropriate visual expression of the emotions and themes of the piece.
That being said, the same instinct for visual communication that served and continues to serve Spielberg so uncommonly well couldn’t just be turned off like a switch, and even if The Color Purple suffers from more inappropriate visual sentiment than perhaps anything else he ever directed, there are still plenty of moments throughout where his ability to short-circuit words and put emotions right into the viewer’s head through the sheer potency of his shots is used to excellent effect. Even some of the more cloying bits of the movie end up working almost despite themselves, creating a sense of bittersweet of beauty that isn’t quite what the script appears to be saying (and it’s even less so what Alice Walker was saying in the source novel), but it is still moving and transporting in its own right, particularly in the shamelessly tearjerking final 20 minutes. I’m enough of an apologist that even problematic Spielberg (which this patently is, as much as anything this side of Amistad – ain’t that a coincidence) still strikes me as being of merit.
Anyway, let’s move on and pick a best shot. I was so ready to run with this one that I even started to write it up, but I got cold feet:
It’s just so… self-consciously composed, right? In useful, telling ways, and there are nice echoes with images from other Spielberg films, but ultimately I’ll leave it as runner-up; I elected to go with something a bit subtler, and character-driven. Namely, this:
The point we’ve hit in the plot is that Celie (Goldberg) has, for the first time in a joyless life, found a true friend and soulmate (and lover, if you read between the lines and don’t have the film’s squeamishness about lesbianism) in the form of Shug Avery (Margaret Avery, the third of the movie’s three acting Oscar nominees). She’s even done a bit of partying and having fun, unprecedented events in her experience, and here we find her wearing one of Shug’s busiest dresses, a sharp contrast to the dowdy rags her abusive husband Mister (Danny Glover) keeps her in.
This one is all about performance, and color – that eye-blasting red, matched slightly by Shug’s reflection in a much more muted robe in the same approximate family, is a bolt of brightness that the gray and brown dominated interiors of the movie to this point have longed for, giving some warmth and life to a character who needs it badly. But even more than that, even more than the wonderful gesticulations Avery is giving in the corner of the frame (which you can’t see in a still, but it’s pretty great), what I love has nothing to do with composition or mise en scène, and all to do with Goldberg’s wonderful physical performance. At this point in the movie, Celie is still largely unspeaking, cowed by everything around her into submission, and Goldberg has an impressive array of expressions and gestures throughout the movie. But all of them topple before the excellence of her bearing and her feelings in this moment: obvious discomfort (those girder-rigid arms!) at being in something so gaudy and revealing, certainly for the first time, but look at that thin-lipped smile of total smug contentment: this woman is proud to be doing something so goofy and embarrassing and naughty, and the way Goldberg plays this one shot is the perfect introduction the story’s central idyll, as her newly-awakened feelings of freedom and self-expression give way to the first honest, rewarding human connection she has ever experienced.
There’s not much active joy in this movie, but this shot surely is joyful; and since the overall arc of the film is toward empowerment and happiness, I think that one of the few moments early on which foreshadow that development was an appropriate way to go. A bit light on directorial pyrotechnics; but then, pyrotechnics are exactly the problem here, and it felt right to someplace totally different.