Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Eddie provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to Eddie:
There's no escaping the fact that Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" will be remembered for sharing the AMPAS's (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) record for most-nominated-film-not-to-win-an-award. Those eleven nominations are all the more infamous because Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director, despite the fact that he received the Directors Guild Award for the 1985 calendar year. The film that swept 1986's Oscar ceremony, "Out of Africa," is a story about a European woman who bosses African servants/slaves and becomes involved in a trifling love affair with a white hunter. "The Color Purple" is a story about the struggle to survive and the will to endure. Granted, a motion picture's subject matter is only one factor to be considered when determining its greatness, but the sheer skill, poetic artistry, and genuine pathos exhibited by "The Color Purple" makes it one of the best American films of the past twenty years.
You'll find a lot of people who talk about Spielberg's "newfound maturity" beginning with 1993's "Schindler's List." I disagree with that assessment of the director's career because the emotional and psychological pains that inform "Schindler's List" can be found almost anywhere in his career, including "Jaws" (his second feature film effort), the "Indiana Jones" series (in which a grown man's obsessive quests for archeological artifacts is an indication of his trying to live up to his father's expectations), and of course, "E.T." If you wanted to divide Spielberg's career in half, you would probably do so with "The Color Purple," made a year after "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and before "Empire of the Sun," "Schindler's List," "Amistad," and "Saving Private Ryan." Before "The Color Purple," Spielberg primarily made thrill-ride entertainments. After "The Color Purple," he continued to direct "fun" movies as well as develop a sub-career of making films about the human condition.
"The Color Purple," based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same title, tells the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a woman raped by her father since she was a little girl. Essentially thrown away by her father to Mister (Danny Glover), Celie is forcibly separated from her sister Nettie. What follows is the story of Celie's life, from having to raise children not much younger than her while under the thumb of a brutal husband to finally finding her own voice. "The Color Purple" is also the story of generations of black women. There's Shug (Margaret Avery), the chanteuse loved by Mister. There's Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), the wife of Mister's son Harpo. There's Nettie, who's always somewhere in the background haunting the movie. While Goldberg and Winfrey have yet to match the performances that they delivered in "The Color Purple," they reveal just how great they can be when inspired.
"The Color Purple" is one of the finest displays of Spielberg's virtuosity as a filmmaker. The film begins with a camera following Celie and Nettie while they play in a field of flowers. When they finally emerge from the tall plants, there's a sad moment when you realize that one of the young girls is pregnant. I also marveled at the shot of a young Celie sitting down to read Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist." The camera focuses on a silhouette of her against the wall. When she stands up and comes back into the camera, she's grown into an adult. Finally, in opposition to the rising moons in "E.T." and "A.I." and in parallel to "Empire of the Sun," there are numerous shots of a descending sun that are breathtaking. Cinematographer Allen Daviau, who also lensed "E.T." and "Empire of the Sun," deserves much of the credit for the film's memorable visuals.
It's true that Spielberg soft-pedals some of the moments in Walker's novel. For example, the source book is much more explicit when dealing with sexual intimacy. However, Spielberg's reading of Walker's text reveals an understanding of human sorrow that is often heartbreaking.
Spielberg indicts the white community of the early twentieth century. The mayor's wife, a Miss Millie, talks about helping "colored" children by giving them toys for Christmas, and she coos and tugs on black children's cheeks. However, she superciliously suggests that Sofia should be her maid, leading to a tragic situation that results in Sofia being thrown in jail for eight years. Upon her release, Sofia is forced to be Miss Millie's maid anyway--yet another jail term for the once fiery, lively, and proud woman. The scenes involving Sofia are probably the most difficult for me to stomach, and I often had to look away from the pain that fills the screen.
The most poignant passage in the movie takes place beginning with the discovery of the letters that Nettie wrote to Celie since they were separated. As Celie reads her sister's letters, the film cuts to her visualizations of Nettie's descriptions of Africa. The most powerful of these cross-cuts occurs when Celie prepares to shave Mister. Editor Michael Kahn cuts between an African initiation ceremony and Celie sharpening a razor blade in anticipation of cutting Mister's throat.
Critics of Spielberg attack him for resorting to using "happy" endings. However, the "happiness" in these movies never feels saccharine sweet or forced. As in "Minority Report," "The Color Purple" earns its final uplift. The events in the story are so heartbreaking that to deprive the characters (and the audience) of hope is to deny the existence of redemption.
Eddie's film rating: 10/10
The Film According to John:
When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was going to direct the film version of Alice Walker's best-selling, 1982 novel "The Color Purple," I admit I was more than a bit skeptical. After all, at the time he had only done adventure and sci-fi thrillers like "The Sugarland Express," "Jaws," "Close Encounters," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T.," etc. What could we expect from him directing a film about a poor Southern black woman and her struggles against not just racism but, more important, family strife?
The answer, of course, is that Spielberg would do Ms. Walker's novel proud. No, the movie isn't as sharp-edged as the book, and, yes, the director does tend too often to sentimentalize the action and characters. But it's hard for anybody to deny the result isn't a powerful and poignant motion picture.
As Eddie says, the story involves the cruel, hard life of an oppressed black woman in rural Georgia, covering a period of almost forty years, starting in 1909. Slavery was long gone, but it didn't stop folks, black and white, from treating others as subservient creatures.
The woman is Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg in only her second screen role. First Celie's domineering father and then her equally domineering husband, Mr. Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), the man her father basically sells her to, use and abuse her, the new husband wanting not a wife but a servant. When Celie's younger sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia), runs away from the incestuous father to join Celie, Mr. Albert separates them, creating one of the film's major conflicts, Celie's desire to see her sister again. The sisters' relationship is one of the sweetest, most-touching elements in the story.
The film's primary conflict, however, is the one Celie fights with herself: She must learn to overcome all odds, learn who she is, assert herself, and become her own person. And what do you mean, Does she do it?
For me, Spielberg's major accomplishment in the film is coaxing as many good performances from his cast as he does. Whoopi Goldberg was making only her second film appearance, Oprah Winfrey (Sofia) her first, and Margaret Avery (Shug) one of her first big-screen appearances, yet the Academy rightly nominated all of them for Oscars. Indeed, there isn't a single person in the cast who isn't deserving of some sort of award, they are all so convincing.
Shug's song, "Celie's Blue," is a highlight of the film and a turning point for Celie. Quincy Jones's musical score goes a long way toward reinforcing the story's mood, perhaps over romanticizing it at times (John Williams seems to have borrowed from it for "Jurassic Park" a few years later) but keeping audience involvement high. And maybe the ending takes on too much of the character of Marc Connelly's "The Green Pastures." Still, we can forgive Spielberg his indulgences when the outcome is so profoundly moving.
John film rating: 8/10
The movie is quite lovely to look at, with director of photography Allen Daviau filming the rural North Carolina countryside lushly, sometimes dreamily, and the MPEG-4, BD50 transfer capturing the 1.85:1 ratio widescreen picture nicely in high definition. Although the image is somewhat soft most of the time, it tends to capture the tone of the movie, and, anyway, the colors are particularly natural, vivid, and vibrant. Moreover, there is a modicum of normal print grain to provide the picture a realistically film-like texture.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack renders the sonics clearly and cleanly, with dialogue, of which there is an abundance, smooth and easy on the ear. The audio engineers use the surrounds to good effect, too, with musical bloom and environmental noises coming through in a most pleasing, all-encompassing manner. The highest strings are perhaps a trifle sharp and bright at times, but it's only a minor concern.
The bonus items on the Blu-ray disc are mostly those found on the earlier, two-disc DVD edition, and again they are in standard definition. These include, first, the featurette "Conversations with the Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen," twenty-six minutes, wherein novelist Alice Walker talks about the screen adaptation of her book. Then, there are "A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple," twenty-eight minutes, followed by "Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple," twenty-three minutes, both with interviews of the cast and crew. Next is "The Color Purple: The Musical," seven minutes, which not about a musical version of the book but about how Spielberg says he really makes musicals "disguised" as adventures and dramas.
The extras conclude with two photo galleries, one behind-the-scenes and the other of the cast; thirty-nine scene selections; two teaser trailers and one theatrical trailer; English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in the back of a forty-four-page Digipak Blu-ray Book, with pictures and text.
It is easy to criticize Spielberg for not making "The Color Purple" as uncompromising as the book, but you can't blame him for wanting to open it up to a wider audience. Certainly, he does justice to the story's major themes and nudges some fine acting from his players. It's a good film all the way around and one that deserves inclusion among the director's best work.