There are plenty of reasons to applaud "The Color Purple," among them the opportunity it affords black actors, who generally are ignored in Hollywood, and director Steven Spielberg, who's never attempted anything quite like it. But while some of those reasons may become important come Oscar time, none has anything to do with the actual movie, which is dull, maudlin and misconceived -- in short, a failure, however noble.
Based on the novel by Alice Walker, "The Color Purple" follows Celie, a black woman in share-cropping Georgia, as she grows from a girl (Desreta Jackson) to a woman (Whoopi Goldberg), and from a kind of personal slavery to independence and self-respect. The man she calls Pa forces himself upon her while she's barely into adolescence, then sells the children she bears him into adoption; worse, he gives her away to a bully, Mr. ---- (Danny Glover), who's less interested in her as a bride than as a workhorse.
Mr. ---- beats Celie, insults her and brings his mistress, torch singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), under the same roof; when Celie's sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) rebuffs his advances, he separates the two sisters. It's a world where a woman has to be strong to survive, but quietly strong -- when Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), wife of Mr. ----'s son Harpo (Willard Pugh), stands up to the white mayor's wife, she's beaten horribly and thrown in jail.
The novel doesn't immediately suggest itself for film adaptation; its structure is epistolary, consisting of letters from Celie to God, or between her and Nettie, and much of what readers responded to was the letter writer's voice. The action of the book, in other words, is interior. And while Spielberg and his screen writer, Menno Meyjes, judiciously limit their use of voice-over monologues to get inside Celie's head, they never really come up with an alternative.
What "The Color Purple" requires, but doesn't have, is a great performer as Celie, someone who could convey her thoughts with an expression or a gesture (since the role is largely nonverbal). Goldberg, unfortunately, is no actress, but essentially a clown, with a clown's range of emotion; she never goes further than Emmett Kelly could by painting his face with either a smile or a frown. She never gets at anything beyond generalized emotion, so that in place of the book's particularized suffering, we get Suffering; her Celie is a heroic victim, but never a character. And because Spielberg concentrates so intently on Celie (actors like Rae Dawn Chong and Adolph Caesar are relegated to the periphery), that flaw is, in itself, nearly fatal.
"The Color Purple" might still have been held together with the director's vision -- his style could take the place of Walker's -- but here, Spielberg falls short. The movie is full of the camera wizardry that only Spielberg is capable of -- the way he turns a frosted window into a kind of real-life iris effect -- and he's a master at generating suspense through a montage of shifting perspectives. But all the crane shots and peek-a-boo tricks only remind you of why you liked "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; instead of fitting the story, the camera becomes a show in itself, and a distraction.
Spielberg is on unfamiliar terrain here, and it shows. There's no intimacy, or sincerity, to the story; "The Color Purple" is a kind of "Places in Somebody Else's Heart." The movie is production-designed to death (by Michael Riva), till the setting looks like a knickknack shop, a historic Williamsburg for rural Georgia. And Allen Daviau's cinematography is crisp, but its very crispness makes the milieu seem even phonier. "The Color Purple" has little sense of place, less sense of period -- although it was shot on location in North Carolina, it might have been made on the back lot.
"The Color Purple" is a self-conscious departure for Spielberg (and an obvious bid for the Oscar he should have won for "E.T."), so what's most surprising about it is how much of a Spielberg movie it really is. Even in such a realistic movie, he finds a place for his new trademark, a Rube Goldberg contraption -- Celie stores her pots and pans in an elaborate rig that descends on pulleys from the ceiling. The movie is full of Spielbergesque pratfalls that are supposed to lighten its tone but only obscure it.
By the end, the edge of the movie is dulled with ladles of Spielberg syrup: sister is reunited with sister, husband is reconciled with wife, father with daughter; villains make their peace with the world. The corniness underscores the absence of a longtime Spielberg collaborator, composer John Williams, whose score really made E.T. fly. "The ColorPurple's" composer, Quincy Jones, brings little of the funkiness that, again, might have given the movie the atmosphere it so desperately lacks. What he's provided, instead, is music with twice the schmaltz of a Williams score, but none of its pacing or the richness of its layered leitmotifs.
And thematically, "The Color Purple" isn't a departure at all. With its bullying men and strong, suffering women, "The Color Purple" deepens Spielberg's picture of the family, in which fathers are either weak or absent and mothers struggle to hold down the fort. In dramatic terms, this view becomes a drag on the movie; while Glover glowers impressively as Mr. ----, he's too hateful to be believed, just as Goldberg's Celie is too saintly. "The Color Purple" has a prosecutorial aura about it, as all its men are thoroughly condemned, all its womenthoroughly exalted. Spielberg is trafficking in causes, not characters.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that perhaps he wasn't the best caretaker of his own talent, and, for wholly different reasons, the same goes for Spielberg. His technical gifts are peerless -- on a par with Hitchcock's -- but in 12 years of making movies, his sensibility hasn't deepened a whit. "The Color Purple" shows no real progress, and neither do his current plans. Spielberg owns the rights to "Schindler's List," the story of a man who helped Jews escape the Holocaust during World War II and exactly the kind of thriller that would be perfect for him.
His next movie, reportedly, is "Peter Pan."