WHENEVER I think of "The Color Purple" now, I think of Whoopi Goldberg's plain brown face shining in a field of lavender daisies dancing in the Georgia sun.

Goldberg debuts as Celie, the humble, indestructible heroine of Alice Walker's fine novel and Steven Spielberg's romanticized adaptation of this tough story of hand-me- down abuse in rural '20s America.

Goldberg is surely an Oscar-contender with this powerful portrayal of a courageous black woman who keeps her faith no matter how she suffers for her sex, her color, her poverty and her plainness. You'd never guess Goldberg is a stand-up comedienne. Sometimes, Goldberg seems to be pure glory inside, letting light escape through her pores.

"The Color Purple," less momentous than we might have hoped, is still satisfying in Spielberg's hands, though overproduced -- like a spiritual sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when a single voice would have done.

It seems improbable from the outset that a mainstream male director would be able to clearly interpret Celie's world of woe. The fanciful Spielberg comes down to earth courageously enough, but his suburban background shows all over the place.

Through his eyes, poverty is a wonderland of warm meadows, bright-eyed babies, sizzling ham and contented cows, a pastoral paradise that makes Dorothy Gale's Kansas farm look like a slum. The contrasting action loses its awful dramatic weight in these sweet settings, a false picture of deprivation and the plight of the social underdog. And yet, the movie remains a tribute to the triumph of the individual over the worst possible odds.

Raped by her father, deprived of her children, abused by her husband, separated from her beloved sister, the 14-year-old Celie perseveres. After 20 years of scrubbing and hoeing and frying eggs, Celie finds freedom with the help of her husband's flamboyant mistress, a blues singer named Shug Avery who becomes her dearest friend.

As long as Spielberg is faithful to Walker's original work, the movie has integrity down to the earthy dialogue, which is taken verbatim. But when he strays, the movie suffers. The most egregious scene features a blues band marching across a meadow to confront a gospel choir, like something out of "Brigadoon." The scene has been written into the screenplay by Menno Meyjes of Holland, surely a strange choice for this adaptation.

The formidable cast includes Danny Glover as Celie's cruel husband Mr.; Margaret Avery as the lusty Shug; Adolph Caesar as Mr.'s hateful father; Akosua Busia as Celie's sister Nettie; and Willard Pugh as Mr.'s son Harpo. Chicago talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey is outstanding as Harpo's wife Sofia, whose strength and self-respect also help Celie to become aware of her own worth.

Whatever its faults, whatever its excesses, "The Color Purple" will make you cry and cry some more. It's an important film, heart- warming, heartbreaking and heartfelt -- a very American saga.

THE COLOR PURPLE (PG-13) -- At area theaters.