(Spoiler alert)
Two black girls in Georgia are never a bother,
But both are still coveted by their own father.
Young Celie’s delivered two children already,
And her only solace is dear sister Nettie.
When one Mr. Johnson comes seeking a wife,
It’s Celie he’s given, a servant for life.
He beats her, insults her, and treats her like dirt;
It’s Nettie he wants, and he’s eager to flirt.
When she still refuses, he sends her away,
But she swears to write, every night, every day.
The years pass in silence as Mister’s kids grow,
And some brash Sofia espouses Harpo.
She proves too high-strung to remain as his wife,
But he builds a juke joint for music and strife.
When Mister’s own prostitute stays for a while,
Shug bonds with Miss Celie and gets her to smile.
A word from the mayor’s wife quickly upsets
Sofia, who gives just as good as she gets.
This sends her to jail, crushing spirit and soul,
And twelve years locked up take a terrible toll.
When Shug visits them, Celie finds, when compelled,
The letters from Nettie that Mister withheld.
She stands up to him and insists she depart,
Which leaves him dumb-struck, and Sofia takes heart.
From then on, Miss Celie, though ugly and fraught,
Has luck on her side, whereas Mister does not.
As if God is trying to help them along,
Shug also makes up with her father in song.
At last, Mister sees all the pain he’s caused Celie
And sends her a gift given slyly and freely.
A tearful reunion, a long-hoped surprise
Fills Celie with joy that no pain can disguise.

The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, was a huge departure for Steven Spielberg, known for action and sci-fi blockbusters rather than emotional period dramas.  It proved how diversified his filmography could become and how skilled he is at coaxing powerful performances from his actors.

Whoopi Goldberg in particular, up to then strictly a comedienne, exhibits one of the most astounding transitions to drama imaginable, portraying Miss Celie in all her vulnerability and long-suffering shyness. Danny Glover as Mister delivers such a brutally despicable performance that it’s sometimes hard to imagine him as a good guy in films like Lethal Weapon and Silverado.  Margaret Avery plays Shug with both crudity and tenderness, and other up-and-coming African-American actors are well-cast, including Rae Dawn Chong and a young Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne).  However, the most moving performance for me comes from debuting Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, a woman forced to fight for her independence, who ends up fighting too hard.  I’m hardly a fan of Oprah, but she most certainly deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (she lost to Angelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor).

As inspiring as The Color Purple is in the end, it is also an unbearably sad portrait of cruelty and a downtrodden life.  Sad is the simplest way to describe all the pain in this film.  It’s sad that nearly every male character treats a woman as a thing to be ordered, beaten, and used.  It’s sad that Mister shamelessly prepares for his mistress in full view of and assisted by his own wife.  It’s sad that the bonds of marriage and parenthood mean nothing and that Celie has a dejectedly ignorant idea of what love is.  It’s sad that Shug’s moral choices alienate her preacher father and that one lapse in judgment ruins Sofia’s life.

Yet the final half hour is full of heartfelt reconciliations and reunions that make all the suffering bearable, if not worthwhile. I first viewed The Color Purple after I entered my current state of rarely if ever crying, but had I seen it when younger, I surely would have bawled multiple times with tears of both sorrow and joy.  My VC still chokes up at the end after multiple viewings.

Sad movies can be tricky. Some attempt social commentary that leaves me feeling manipulated and depressed (The Bicycle Thief, When the Wind Blows); others like The Color Purple balance the misery with moments of kindness and light that ultimately leave viewers satisfied. (Grave of the Fireflies may lean more to the former side, but there’s enough of the latter to win me over.  It’s still the only film that can get my lacrimal glands working.)

Though it failed to win any of its eleven Oscar nominations (being overshadowed by Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa), The Color Purple is a masterpiece, one of those films that makes critics wax philosophical about the triumph of the human spirit.  Well done, Mr. Spielberg.

Best line: (Sofia) “Set in that jail, I set in that jail till I near about done rot to death. I know what it like, Miss Celie, wanna go somewhere and can’t. I know what it like to wanna sing… and have it beat out ‘ya. I want to thank you, Miss Celie, for everything you done for me. I ‘members that day, I’s in the store with Miss Millie; I’s feelin’ real down, I’s feelin’ mighty bad. And when I seed you…I knowed there is a God. I knowed there is a God. And one day I’s gonna get to come home.”

Rank: 55 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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