Elegantly mounted, wholly memorable in its narrative simplicity and buttressed by absolutely marvellous performances throughout, the film is a showcase for black actors, of which the standout performance belongs to then, relatively unknown comedian, Whoopi Goldberg. As Celie Harris, the awkward, put upon wife of boorish, Albert (Danny Glover), Goldberg delivers an Oscar worthy performance that sadly, went virtually unnoticed by the Academy.
Sensitive to the subject of persecution, Spielberg brought an unusual intensity and emotional outpouring to this exercise - qualities that not even the book's author initially anticipated would be forthcoming from a man internationally known for his work in science fiction. Yet, with an unforgettable score by Quincy Jones and a masterful screenplay by Menno Meyes, that encapsulated all of the critical angst and suffrage in Walker's novel, the film emerged as a major critical and financial triumph.
After having her illegitimate daughter sold by her stepfather who has raped her, Celie (first played by Desreta Jackson) is sold in servitude to Albert (Glover); an abusive man who cannot shake free the memory of his onetime lover, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Life in Albert's home is demoralizing to say the least. Celie's introduction to Albert's three children results in her being struck in the head with a brick. Generally exploited as a drudge housekeeper and as an object for Albert's occasional drunken sexual abuse, Celie's one ray of sunshine is her relationship with younger sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia) who quietly teaches Celie how to write - a skill that will become useful to her later in life.
Unfortunately for these sisters, Albert has also taken an interest in Nettie. After Nettie escapes Albert's attempt to rape her, she is banished from his farm and forced to fend for herself. Celie (now played by Goldberg) endures the passing of her young adult years in demoralizing servitude to Albert.
When Shug returns, Albert brings her into his home as his mistress. But time has changed Shug. Once the respected daughter of preacher, Reverend Samuel (Carl Anderson), Shug's reckless alcoholism and her preference in singing torch songs at honky-tonks on the wrong side of the tracks rather than spirituals in church has made her an outcast of her family.
As Shug slowly begins to sober up she and Celie strike up an unlikely, but wholly remarkable friendship. In the novel, this relationship does more than hint at lesbianism, but in the film it rewardingly evolves as an indestructible bond between two women who are gradually coming into their own.
Shug teaches Celie how to love herself, how to appreciate the innate gifts she has to offer the world, but perhaps most important of all, how to stand apart from her husband's constant ridicule. The two rifle through Albert's mail and learn that Nettie has been writing Celie through the years in letters from Africa that Albert has kept from Celie in order to punish her.
In the meantime, Albert's son, the hapless no account, Harpo (Willard Pugh) has impregnated the impoverished, though stalwartly determined, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey). Forcing the marriage, Sofia becomes the 'man' of her family - bossing about Harpo until, at his wits end, he asks Celie what he should do with his new wife. Regrettably, Celie's only reply is one that she has learned from living with Albert. She instructs Harpo to beat his wife into submission. But Sofia is hardly the shrinking type. Instead she gives Harpo a bigger beating before leaving him for another man. Harpo takes up with Squeak (Rae Dawn Chong); a young woman with few inhibitions.
However, when Sofia refuses to take menial work from Miss Millie (Dana Ivey), the mayor's wife, she is arrested and beaten by racist police and then sent to the woman's detention home where she is repeatedly abused before being released into Miss Millie's custody as her servant.
After years of enduring her husband's emotionally crippling abuse, Celie defies Albert - almost killing him with his own razor; a fate intervened by Shug, who rightfully explains that if Celie kills Albert now, she will never entirely be free of him. Shug and her new husband, Grady (Bennet Gillory) take Celie and Squeak with them. Gradually Celie learns to become independent; opening a haberdashery that specializes in 'one size fits all' slacks.
Shug returns to the local community sometime later. Yet, despite her attrition from past immorality, her father is unable to forgive her. Appearing at Harpo's speakeasy on Sunday, Shug begins to sing her trademark torch song. She is emotionally stirred to join in the faint echoes of her father's gospel choir performing at his nearby church, effectively dragging the entire gathering from Harpo's bar into Reverend Samuel's church, declaring, "See daddy. Even sinner's have souls."
The music also has a softening effect on Albert's hard heart. He writes immigration to bring Nettie and Celie's illegitimate son back to America to be reunited with her. The film ends with this emotional reunion as Albert wanders off in the distance - alone, though nevertheless having come to some peace within himself.
Alice Walker’s initial misgivings, about having ‘a white boy’ direct an all black ensemble were set aside after Spielberg's early rushes so captured the spirit of her characters that Walker admitted she was absolutely bowled over.
To be certain, Spielberg’s intimate handling is first class all the way. He proves his metal with a genuine flair for screen intimacy only superficially exercised in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. - the Extraterrestrial. His, is a richly textured and ultimately liberating canvas of superlative moments effortlessly strung together; the generational tale growing somehow more poignant and revealing with each passing sequence and, even more startlingly so, upon repeat viewings of the film. Rarely has a story of such tenderness been more acutely captured on celluloid.
The Color Purple arrives on a single Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video. While image quality takes a quantum leap forward over Warner's own previously issued 2-disc DVD from 2002, the film's lengthy run time and limitations in Blu-Ray compression hamper the overall impact of the image as it might have existed, if it were spread across two discs using Blu-Ray's higher bit rate.
Nevertheless, colors are bold, vibrant and well delineated. Contrast levels are superbly rendered. Occasionally, digital artefacts remain, but the overall grain structure is much improved as is the extolling of fine details in grass, trees, fabric used in costumes and close ups of faces. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes.
The audio is 7.1 Dolby Digital and remarkably powerful – particular during the climactic showdown of songs, in which Shug’s honky tonk twang is reformed into a spiritual revival with the sinners all miraculously reformed back into relative saints. Extras include 'Conversations with Ancestors: from Book to Screen - a documentary on the making of the film, short featurettes on the stage musical adaptation, cast focused featurettes, but regrettably, no audio commentary from Spielberg or anyone else for that matter. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)