The Real Hard Times: “The Color Purple” (1985)

If there has ever been a story that puts 21st-century middle-class American problems into perspective, it is “The Color Purple.” I am writing this review after my first official viewing, and I can honestly say this film had a deep emotional impact on me. “The Color Purple” was released 1985, three years after the novel of the same name was published by author Alice Walker.  Stephen Spielberg directed this story of young African American girl named Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who grows up in rural Georgia under a yoke of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her supposed father (Leonard Jackson.) The only solace Celie finds in her brutal existence is in the company of her younger sister, Nettie, played by Akosua Busia. She gives birth to two children sired by her father who removes them from the home immediately following the births. He takes them somewhere unknown to Celie or her sister and threatens Celie with violence if she “talks to anyone but God” about her experiences.

In an effort to cope with her grief she starts writing letters to God, and we hear the full extent of Celie’s loneliness. Celie doesn’t understand that the abuse she receives is an injustice towards her because her father spends his days insulting her and robbing her of any shred of self-esteem she could possibly develop in her early years. Shortly after the birth of her second child- a daughter she named Olivia- her father gives her away to Albert “Mister” Johnson (Danny Glover). He comes to their home seeking the hand of Nettie but settles for Celie once Pa Harris makes it clear he will not consent to him marrying his youngest daughter. Celie goes from one abusive situation to another, and her fate appears to be sealed until Nettie shows up to their farm one day fleeing the advances of their pedophile father who’s turned his attention towards her. Glover’s portrayal of Mister is sickening; he is predatory and threatening. In a particularly cringe-worthy encounter, we see Mister stalking Nettie as she walks to school, leering at her through a tree line partition splitting the road they are on in two. He attempts to rape her, but Nettie hits him with her book bag and runs back to the farm to tell Celie. The scene that unfolds after Mister returns to the farm, wounded in pride and in body, is horrifying. The struggle seems to go on forever, Celie clinging to his legs as he pulls the screaming Nettie by anything he can hold onto to drag her toward the property gate.  The rest of his young children stare onward toward the scene with curious looks on their faces that can only be found on the faces of children who are accustomed to daily violence. The background is eerily quiet, the only noise coming from the screaming girls and shouting Mister. With the banishment of her sister, Celie is truly alone without a single person for her to confide in.

This movie was full of firsts for some of the major players who worked on the production. This was Whoopie Goldberg’s breakout film performance, and she won a Golden Globe award and received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Celie. In Roger Ebert’s 1985 Chicago Sun Times Review, he described the “The Color Purple” as “the best film of the year,” while hailing Goldberg’s performance as “the best debut performance in film history”- incredibly strong words coming from one of the most revered film critics of all time. Goldberg’s portrayal of Celie is a performance you would expect from a veteran actress, and she hits all three of my requirements for a truly believable period-piece portrayal: 1. Do I consistently feel the emotions the character is trying to depict throughout the film? 2. At any point do I think, “Ah, jeez, come on. That’s a little over the top.” 3. Do I walk away feeling that I learned something about the character, the time period, or human nature in general?

Oprah Winfrey also made her film debut in this movie as Sophia Johnson, a punchy and rebellious young woman who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Willard Pugh.) Oprah brings a vigor and robustness to the character, someone that is to be feared and respected, and an even greater sadness and deflated presence when Sophia’s spirit is broken after several years in prison for striking the mayor with her fist. Oprah exposed her acting chops in this film and showed herself to be a woman of many talents. Her performance seemed to draw on a deep understanding of people who were born into great poverty and continuously kept in their class by an imaginary barrier that no one beneath it can seem to move. She performed the role of Sophia courageously and without restraint.

Prior to this film, Stephen Spielberg’s reputation was built upon his wildly popular action films from the late 70’s and early 80’s such as “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and he took on this powerful period piece and proved himself to be a diverse filmmaker. As you very well know, Spielberg has continued to make critically acclaimed films and since then become one of the most esteemed filmmakers of all time. Reportedly, people scoffed at the idea of Spielberg making a serious film like “The Color Purple,” and doubted it would be successful. I guess the joke is on them!

I am not ashamed to tell you I cried like a baby at the end of this film. I boohooed big time, tears flowing, my dog panicking and trying to lick the tears from my face. If you don’t know me, trust me when I say that is an unusual response from me as only a few films have brought me to tears. Most of Celie’s life is horrible. She is repeatedly disrespected and spit on by the people who are supposed to protect her, but she survives, not on purpose, but something within her keeps her spirit from breaking. She has nothing left to lose when she finally finds her voice and gives a big middle finger to everyone who has wronged her by grabbing onto the end of her life with two hands and crafting a future for herself and those who have earned her trust. This film has a happy ending- we are all a little ragged and injured by the time we get there, but the smile that adorns your face at the end is earned. The movie is truly inspiring, and if you are looking for a story that shows the unbelievable resilience of a person on the lowest rung of early 20th-century society, you need to watch “The Color Purple.” You will not be disappointed.

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