Somehow, this one had slipped through the cracks for me. It was my first viewing, and I had no idea what to expect. What I saw was well put together, very well acted, yet manipulative and dated. A very good movie, politically very important, but not an essential film.
Spielberg did this film and Empire of the Sun sandwiched between Temple of Doom and Last Crusade. It is nice to see his talents applied to more story- driven and socially relevant pictures than he tends to put out. Throughout Spielberg uses his camera to add meaning, framing his actors and lingering on important artifacts in the film. Almost too much so (yes I get it, the lemonade, all right), but the Senor was never one to let subtlty get in the way of communicating his message.
The acting is what really shines here. Danny Glover is the best I have ever seen him (not saying much, I guess) as the brutal Albert. Margaret Avery is also dazzling as the confident but troubled singer Shug Avery. Whoppi Goldberg, as the deeply reserved Celie, is fine but not much is required of her than to look awkward and afraid. Goldberg would of course use this role to launch her incomparable movie career; in just two years after The Color Purple she would put out Jumpin' Jack Flash AND Burglar! That is incomparable!
But the true revelation is Oprah Winfrey as the fiesty Sophia. Her strength is so natural on the screen, her character dominating every scene, that I thought it a shame that the talk show turned out so well. I could have taken many more movies from this woman. My loss is Dr. Phil's gain.
The character of Sofia also highlights some of the flaws of The Color Purple. After her spirit is broken, Winfrey is directed to turn the character inward so far that she literally rocks back and forth in her chair, almost insane with disconnection from the world. One outburst from Celie, and suddenly woman is rejuvenated. This sort of broad and obvious emotional development of the characters is no doubt why the book and film were so popular, but also why it had me rolling my eyes at times.
The politics are also oddly dated. The critique of power differentials between race and gender are of course spot on and compelling. But the positive move, a sort of African utopianism, is hard to place. The reclamation of black identity as African was very much in vogue at the time (less widespread now, I think, but still there of course). The move to place African history in schools, T shirts proclaiming "I am descended from Kings," even Cosby was inserting very low key African identity claims into his sitcom (I am thinking of the tuxedos here).
The movie seems to imply that such a move is not just personal identity exploration, tracing one's roots, but actually could serve as a political model in the long term. Returning home has cleansed the characters of American oppression, something the system prohibited for those unable to make that journey. Spielberg is too populist to really lay that argument on the line (perhaps the book does?), but it was interesting to note the political moment from which this text was produced.
Illuminating performances, capabale if obvious direction, a storyline that grabs its audience by the shoulders and forces it to march along the narrative's emotional path, all make for a good and intersting film. I recommend it, more for its historical importance that as a great film in its own right.