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Revisiting "The Color Purple" With Oscar-Tinted Glasses

When I selected The Color Purple (1985) for the Best Shot series I was motivated not only by recent conversations about Oprah Winfrey's big screen return and dim memories of her debut as Sofia but by my own remembered shrug towards the movie. For such a widely beloved movie it's not one I ever warmed to -- though I remember loving the "Miss Celie's Blues" scene -- which turned to be the magnet for our Best Shot club. I knew it was time to revisit since how can you ever warm to something you're never in contact with? I hadn't watched the film since I was sitting in the movie theater in 1985 as a newborn Oscar fanatic (!) if you can believe it.

my favorite of the movie's self-consciously beautiful moments

1985 was a crucial year in my Oscar fanaticism. It was the first year in which I consciously remember reading about movies through a golden statue lens and wondering about what might get nominated months in advance. This hardly seems worth noting except that this was unusual at the time. That's something that people do much more loudly now -- like 10,000 times more loudly -- than they ever did publicly before, say, the early mid 90s when the sea change began (brought on by both the rise of campaign-crazy Miramax and the Internet). By the late 90s Oscar had fully become the long seasonal circus we recognize today as opposed to a One Night Only event that people talked about for one month of the year. It seems like such an innocent time actually -- the only articles about Oscar were in monthly or weekly entertainment magazines until basically the week of the ceremony when things got loud. At least that's the way I remember it. 

I bring up the Oscars primarily as a window to personal history and how my opinion has both changed and stayed the same. [more]

I still don't love The Color Purple. The repeated use of outright slapstick to lighten the mood is outrageously tone-deaf to the depth of the misery experienced by Celie (rather than balancing salve, since the non-slapstick humor is more than enough) and throws an unflattering light both on Spielberg's audience hand-holding (usually a negative) and his dynamic framing (usually a positive), making the latter feel more cartoon-like than any version of this story not called Disney's The Color Purple should. The movie is beautifully lit by Allen Daviau but in some ways I find it easier to choose my worst shot than my best. Since that pandering eye and the cartoon framing really trouble me.


But today I do like The Color Purple much more than I did and wish I liked it more than that still though I think that would require a remake from a more nuanced directorial eye and ear (removing the sentimental and constant musical score would help immeasurably) though good luck besting the Whoopi-Margaret-Oprah trinity. That might be too tall a task.

All of which is my way of saying that my choice for Best Shot is not so much a definitive shot from the movie -- none of the key actresses are present -- but the one that took me most by surprise with its sideways potency. It's the shot that suggested a thousand other movies about women of color and their hard road, movies taking place concurrently alongside this one and some of them, sadly, running still. 

best shot

Weddings should be happy events. In this sequence early in the film, Nettie and Celie are not yet separated and their father remarries a bride their age. She turns and looks at her new step-daughters while they whisper and giggle. Her expression is ambiguous enough to allow you to fill it. With fear. With sadness. With resignation. With disguised anger... with any story you could imagine (except a happy one). Her story would be readily understood by Celie and Nettie should their sealed sibling bond open long enough for them to really look at her, and let another sister in.

This moment presages a lot of what I didn't understand in 1985 but which the movie will focus on and concern itself with. The way in which the oppressed look at and to each other with fear, confusion, guilt, shared misery, and even hope in their most daring moments. But will they meet another oppressor?

Celie's first meeting with Shug is cruel...

You sure is ugly!"

And Celie herself famously aids in the crushing of Sofia's spirit... which makes her triumphant curse on "Mister" painfully compromised with history.

Everything you done to me, already done to you."

When these women dare to really look at each other they can also meet a kind gaze and find a new kind of "Sister"

my favorite sequence, just masterfully composed and resonant

Frankly watching it again I experienced a moment of what one might call White Liberal Guilt. I grew up 5 minutes from the Detroit border and my childhood was unofficially segregated -- my graduating class in high school had 300+ students and I personally only knew one student who wasn't white. I also wasn't fully cognizant of my own status as an LGBT person so the uproar over Spielberg's coyness didn't register strongly though Shug's singing to Whoopi was (and still is) my favorite piece of the movie. In fact, I love the whole scene both before it and after it at the Juke Joint -- by far the longest stretch in the movie where everything works... even (sigh) the slapstick with Harpo falling from the rafters.

I worry now that my young self was just completely naive about the outrageous and enduring systematic injustices of both racism and sexism. How did I not thrill to Whoopi Goldberg's lead performance, for example, which is nuanced, measured, brave, multi-tonal and uniquely beautiful? I remembered it somehow as amateurishly awkward as Celie moved from meekness to strength but this is not at all how it plays as an adult, with Whoopi taking the necessary baby steps to show Celie's very slow growth which leads to her finally standing up for herself and strong against Mister. In a way this newfound strength -- it is a character leap -- is brilliantly exposed as who Celie always would have been, had the world been kinder to her. How did I not cry for Sofia's (Oprah Winfrey) vivacious proud spirit being crushed? How did Shug's desperate need to be loved by her father not move me more?

I'm glad I grew up. I'm happy to re-absorbed the story with wiser more compassionate eyes and for the first time I'm desperate to read the book and discover what so many claim Spielberg missed in this uneven, compromised but powerful film version. 

my favorite of Celie, laughing so hard it looks like she's wailing in anguish

If you've seen The Color Purple recently did your opinion change?

To circle back to Oscar history, which of its 11 nominations would you have gladly seen it win? (At the time I was fine with none and I think most people today wrongly remember how stacked with wonders the 1985 Oscars were in a lot of categories but today in 2013 I am kind of outraged that it didn't win these two statuettes: "Best Song" and "Best Makeup". And I finally understand why so many people wanted it to win "Best Actress" (though it would have been horrible to see acting legend Geraldine Page go to her grave Oscarless.)

see all the shots chosen and read the great articles from participating blogs

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Reader Comments (26)

Great writeup and nice choice for best shot. I actually shortlisted that image itself, but I wasn't exactly sure how I would analyze it. It conveys so much and I think you articulated it nicely.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

This is a very thought provoking piece, Nathaniel. Much to consider.

I don't completely love this film but I do like it a lot and only a few months ago I was using Spielberg's work here in a presentation I was making in class on who *deserves* to adapt the stories of the marginalised. As much as the film has its imperfections, I've never really been moved to condemn his work here. It's been some time since I read the novel, but as much of the original text as the film paints too broadly (it is not as nuanced, indeed) it gets the feel of it right for the most part. This time around I found the almost too beautiful photography as a lovely way of offsetting the truly ugly things that are happening plot wise. In that way the slapstick, which didn't quite bother me, doesn't take away from the central seriousness as much as try to cut into the potentially overwhelming dourness.

Of your Oscar question, I'd have definitely liked to see it win for Original Song and Avery's performance but otherwise that was a stacked year acting wise and that best Actress lineup (but for Bancroft) was quite stellar, I think. Whoopi, Jessica and Geraldine in particular are all fantastic.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

What a cool choice for best shot. Loved reading this whole story. As for Oscars, I'd want Goldberg in a narrow pip over Lange and Page, and Avery over Huston even though I think she falls short of the possibilities of her role. Nothing else, I don't think.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Nick - not even Best Song? Or do you boycott that category in memory, too.

Shane -- thanks! Maybe you subconciously influenced me since you wrote your piece before I had settled on a shot and i had a handful of about 12 frames I was trying to decide between .

Andrew K -- thank you. that question "who deserves" is so thorny, right? People always want to reduce it to skin color (or nationality when it comes to actors getting famous roles from literature) but isn't it more about who has the right temperament and heart for the specific material? Not saying Spielberg does of course because the famous Best Director omission despite the plentiful nominations is totally a sensible decision if you ask me.

August 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Wow, so much material here to try to sift through....

I love this movie, flaws and all. I loved it the first time I saw the opening credits on Christmas night, at the theater by the Seattle Center (can't remember which one). The audience laughed during the funny parts, but during 90% of the movie, it was like being in church; people were MESMERIZED by the power of the story, and Spielberg's handling of it--even if some moments are played way over the top and lack subtlety. (Yes, the bloody handprint on the rock is but one example.) And more problematic than Spielberg's direction is Menno Meyjes' script (who ARE all these children running around? Do they have names? How do they relate to the main characters? Why does Sophia ask Celie if she wants a "dead son-in-law" when Harpo is her stepson? Why was the subplot about Squeak's rape in exchange for Sophia's freedom cut? Etc.) Some people are still bent that Spielberg, a white man, directed this movie--but at least he used his power to get it made, which is more than a lot of filmmakers do. (Don't get me started on the waste of the Wayans Brothers' talent.) And, it should be noted, Oprah hired Jonathan Demme to direct "Beloved," and he got a lot less flack than Spielberg did--and his movie tanked.

The Oscar travesty that year was a clear slap at Spielberg's ascendency; how dare he try to make a "serious" movie, in addition to making blockbusters? (A lot of industry people were also thrilled by the relative failure of his "Amazing Stories," though it was a fertile breeding ground for future talent.) As I commented to a friend at the time, "What does it say about the Academy that they're more interested in the romantic losses of a privileged white woman living in Africa than the triumph of a poor black woman?" (See also: the Oscar goes to "Driving Miss Daisy" over the non-nominated "Do The Right Thing," and the shrill, "Racism is BAD!" bombast of "Crash" over the subtle heartbreak and tragedy of "Brokeback Mountain.") The movie's losing every one of its 11 nominations was an obvious snub, especially when Spielberg won the DGA for it. I've never seen "The Trip to Bountiful," but I have a hard time shaking the belief that Geraldine Page's win was a convenient "career Oscar" as well as a way to avoid rewarding "The Color Purple." (A black woman would not win Best Actress for another 16 years, with Halle Berry; Goldberg would have to settle for 1990's Best Supporting Actress--first black actress to win since Hattie McDaniel in 1940.)

To the movie's shots: one of the obvious ones is Goldberg's Celie turning to Mister at the car, and doing that thing with her fingers, as if she's cursing him for the rest of his days (which, as it turns out, he will be). Goldberg claims that she doesn't know where the gesture came from, it was pure instinct--but it works. Also playing on instinct is Oprah Winfrey, whose surefire tearjerking scene at the dining room table ("...and when I seen you, I know there is a God") was largely improvised on the spot, and Spielberg just kept the cameras rolling while she caught lightning in a bottle. Those two performances alone, and the comfort that those women felt under his guidance, is a testimony to his genius with actors. (Another moment that fills me with horror: Akosua Busia's terrified, repeated near-whisper "I gotta go to school" as Mister makes his move on her in the empty glade.) The hair-raising expression on Celie's face as she walks toward Mister, razor ready. (Hell, all the shots in that sequence.) The scene with the train, where Celie imagines the girl running next to her is Nettie, and throws the gold chocolates to her. And of course anything from the (admittedly shameless) climax involving the church reconciliation, the purple flowers, the silhouettes, Goldberg screaming "NETTIE!", etc. is worthy. (I also love the way Spielberg keeps shooting the mailbox throughout the film in all kinds of light and weather--again, it's not subtle, but it's so evocative, it's almost as if the mailbox is a character in the story.)

But for me, the moment I love--the moment I think is key to the film, and I'd love to know how much Goldberg had to do with it--is after Celie comes back to town, now an established woman with monkey fur (!), red gloves (!!), and a cigarette. She finds out that her childhood house was actually in her mother's name, and the worthless man she thought was her pa has died and left his new wife the money. But Celie has the house! She bids goodbye to the wife, turns away, puts on her glasses--and then, as the music rises, she turns and really sees it for the first time in years. She lets out a little scream of joy and does a little cha-cha in the lane, then runs towards it, filled with anticipatory joy. As I said above: how often do we see movies about black women triumphing? That moment is Celie's moment of pure triumph, and from there, we see her open her own business (as a tailor/seamstress), fix up her house, watch as Shug reconciles with her father, and then has her own reunion with her sister and children. Her life completely turns around and just keeps getting better and better; similarly, after so much heartbreak and loss, the last half hour of the movie brings in one joyful moment after another.

(One final note: Spielberg got a lot of grief for how the men are portrayed in this film as "brutes" and "sex crazed" and was it a fair representation of black manhood. Almost everything onscreen involving Mister and his father and how they treat women is taken directly from Walker's novel; the one thing he cut--which they did put in the musical, and it still doesn't work--is Mister and Celie's subsequent reconciliation, which after almost 30 years of neglect, abuse, and insults would be very, very hard to believe. I think the behind-the-scenes maneuver that Mister does to help Nettie come home--which isn't in the novel--isn't necessarily a Triumph of the Patriarchy, or him reforming himself; it's more like him paying off karma so he'll finally be left alone.)

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

1985 was also a really important year for me as an Oscar follower. I saw in theatres almost all the movies nominated included this one. I think I only missed Ran and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

I don't usually mind self-consciously beautiful moments specially in melodramas, so I would probably choose the first one you posted. Lost paradises of youth always get me.

Oscars? Best make-up for sure, but Out of Africa and Prizzi's Honor come first in the rest of categories. Speaking of purple, shame on the Academy for mistreating Woody's.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Great read! My memories of the movie are mixed and vague, but there's really no putting down that trio of actresses. Odd that two of them ended up as talk show hosts.
Speaking of your first Oscar year... You should totally collect your readers' first Oscar memories. I would love to read them, and I'm curious about when the readership started watching. I remember mine! (Those one-handed push-ups!)

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I also like how Speilberg uses the postmans changing mode of getting around,i also feel desreta Jackson doesn't get enough credit as young Celie.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

I unabashedly love this movie. I get what everyone is saying about Spielberg but he got the movie made and directed these wonderful performances by Goldberg, Winfrey and Avery. And for that I'm grateful.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

(90) Actress: Kathy Bates (goes over to kiss Anjel on the way to the podium)

(90) Sup Actress: Whoopi Goldberg (should have broke the color barrier in Actress but settled for a popular makeup win while Anjel holds a death stare as she runs to the podium)

Oprah's ascent in the pop culture enabled her a Kennedy Center Honor and a Jean Hersholt statuette (Anjel was never invited as a guest on her show)

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Great piece. I love the movie, personally, but I certainly see where you're coming from re: the slapstick moments. Honestly though, my only major complaint would involve the scene of Sophia's return home intercut with her employer's disastrous attempt at driving. Other than that, it runs neck and neck with Shoah, Ran, and Purple Rose of Cairo as one of 1985's best.

And Goldberg totally deserved that Oscar.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Read the book immediately! You will most definitely not regret it.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrahulio

Random trivia I just found out: Akosua Busia (who plays young AND old Nettie) is supposedly a real-life princess and was married to John Singleton (of Boyz N the Hood fame). I found that interesting.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

i'd give it song and actress but take away the best pic nomination

anjelica deserved supporting but i'd put oprah as a close runner-up

i wonder if margaret avery, amy madigan and meg tilly ever get together and reminisce about that crazy time they were oscar nominees? it's not as if they're up to much else...

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

Great write-up about TCP and your budding Oscar fanaticism.

I first watched the Oscars in 1986 to see if ALIENS (my fave movie as a 14-year-old) would win anything. It was only 6 months later that the Oscar-watching die was cast: I decided to see all the Best Picture nominees in the cinema, since it was more fun watching the Oscars when you'd seen the films. I'd already coincidentally seen FATAL ATTRACTION and HOPE AND GLORY, so why not THE LAST EMPEROR, BROADCAST NEWS and MOONSTRUCK, which hadn't then opened?

Then of course I had to think about what *could* get nominated next year, so I didn't miss it in cinemas! And so the cycle began, only increasing in complexity once I decided I needed to see all the Best Actress nominees in cinemas (about '94) and then all the Pic, Directing and Acting nominees ('95 onwards). But the '87 race holds a fondness for me because it was my 'first time'.

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Winfrey deserved Best Actress for her Celie, just like Legend Page'd have deserved to win earlier (SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH...)

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

For those of us in the black community so much of the film's potency rests in its mere existence -- the fact that this story adapted from a work by this particular woman about these female characters came to be produced at all during this specific era. There's a reason that, above countless other "black-themed" films, "The Color Purple" remains so sacrosanct among people of color. Women like my grandmother saw their mothers, sisters, and themselves in Celie, Shug, and Sofia in ways that many of them hadn't in the cinema before, and some haven't since. This wasn't simply a vivid, resonant piece of fiction; it was their lives (she eventually told me of her own struggles with an abusive step-father).

Those of us with more discriminating tastes and discerning eyes than the "average viewer" can continue to argue the merits of Spielberg's handling of the work, but one thing none of us can deny is its enduring legacy.

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I feel like it was not just it was shut-out of the Oscars but it was already in shaky ground with no Spielberg directing nomination and the Best Picture winner of that year was..... **drum roll** Out of Africa. A romantic movie with colonized Africa as a mere backdrop. Forget whether or not it was even a good movie but the tone deafness of that selection and snubbing of those two movies that one year is why a lot of people hate the Oscars. So many vendettas, arbitrary standards, and a whole lotta nerve from voters in that one Oscar year.

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Troy H -- well said.

CMG -- see i dont think there was any vendetta. I think it's just how the cards fell... and the target audience of The Color Purple was not exactly Oscar's demo (at the time) so it did super well all things considered. i also dont think there was a vendetta when they went for Driving Miss daisy and not Do the Right Thing. A tone-deafness sure -- and for me the 1989 problem is WAY worse than the Color Purple problem because of the quality of the films -- but i dont think its intentional hatefulness.

also i haven't seen OUT OF AFRICA in years but i remember it being very elegantly made with prestige actors which Oscar has usually responded to whatever the subject matter (as long as its in the prestige drama arena)

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

In 1985 this movie was one of a kind. This part of american history was rarely be seen on the big screen. In my opinion Whoopi Goldberg would have two Oscars now!

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Whoopi Goldberg

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Oprah Winfrey

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
J. Michael Riva
Bo Welch
Linda DeScenna

Best Cinematography
Allen Daviau

Best Costume Design
Aggie Guerard Rodgers

Best Makeup
Ken Chase

Best Music, Original Song
Quincy Jones (music/lyrics)
Rod Temperton (music/lyrics)
Lionel Richie (lyrics)
For the song "Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)".

Best Picture
Steven Spielberg
Kathleen Kennedy
Frank Marshall
Quincy Jones

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Menno Meyjes

9 out of 11 - yes, I'm a big fan...

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersteolicious

White-guilt be damned, I love this film on a visceral level, not a political one (not to imply yours was, of course) and this is one of my most beloved films and was, I believe, robbed of Best Picture over the thumping bore that was - and is - "Out Of Africa." And, while I understand your feelings about her going to the grave Oscar-less, Goldberg deserved the award over Page, a legend for sure, but who received it, I also believe, because she was dying, not because it was the year's best performance, or even Page's (in a mediocre film, at that. Though I haven't seen "Trip" in twenty years, so that opinion might change). Goldberg's was, up to that point, probably the greatest film debut I've ever witnessed. I knew the film - and Goldberg - had no chance, as there were no pre-Oscar wins for it, she or even Spielberg (his DGA win, notwithstanding) on the major awards circuit, but to me it remains one of the great Oscar losses.

Of course all these are opinions, I know. Which is all we have.

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjeffreychrist

You really need to read Alice Walker's novel, pronto. It delves far more into Celie and Shug's relationship (and even eventual co-habitation) than Spielberg ever attempted. It even tries to redeem Albert by the end (amongst other changes) in a more forceful way than the film did (which at the time I watched "The Color Purple" first, I didn't necessarily think he earned given all the shit he put Celie through for so long). Despite my unending love for the novel, this film is a thing of beauty and one of my all-time favorites. I truly cannot stand to read the criticisms that the film has amassed over the years with how it reeks of "sentimentalism" and manipulation. I see a beautiful story of friendship and resillence hard-earned through years and cycles of systematic abuse, poverty, and neglect. I'm trying to see the "slapstick" nature of things that you're talking about, like Harpo going through the floorboards or Squeak landing in the water after Sofia's beatdown at the juke joint. That was fine to me and provided a needed respite from the direness of the majority of the narrative. Whoopi Goldberg gave a staggering debut lead performance that should have won her the Oscar. Margaret Avery or OPRAH! would have made fine supporting actress winners (but nothing against Angelica Huston that year, per se). I think Spielberg was robbed in best director. And why was Danny Glover never talked up for any real kind of nomination here? He's never been better than this performance. I would have given the film more than 11 Oscar nominations and definitely some wins. The only part of the film I found to be unsucessful was the Africa segment, which felt oddly shoehorned in the narrative and could have been implemented in better ways than what it ended up being. That might have been the only time where I thought that either the seams were showing in the adaptation or on Spielberg's part. I could talk about this film for hours on end, and I've rambled about it long enough. I'm glad you gave the film another chance. That's all you can ask for, really. Not many would do that after making their first judgments about it, especially if those judgments were negative. At least you appreciate it more! That's something to applaud!

August 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBillBill

jeffreychrist - Whoopi did have a pre-Oscar win! She won the Golden Globe. She was pretty much the frontrunner and expected to win the award, I think.

I really wish Whoopi had won the award.

August 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I'm late to the party because I had never seen the film and didn't have a chance to watch until today. I had always put it off because I didn't care for the book all that much and now having seen the film my feeling is the same for it.

Decent acting, a lot of ugly story to slog through to get to the empowerment part but I can see where others would enjoy it. I just wasn't for me.

Liked your best shot Nathaniel. For me mine would be towards the end when the sisters are surrounded by the purple flowers of the field. No deeper reason than its very striking, I'll have more to say for The Bad and the Beautiful.

August 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

About every 10 years, I watch "Out of Africa" - I'm due for for my 4th viewing soon. And every time I try to understand why people found this movie with amazing actors and scenery the "best picture" of the year. I have never understood it.
When I was 15 in theaters and now in my 40s, The Color Purple totally works for me. Yes, the book is (of course it is) better. But the movie is a brilliant life story wonderfully told. It should have been best the Best Picture of the year - especially given the quality, but not overwhelming competition.

(I also would have preferred to see it win Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Score, Best Song, etc. but I just don't resonate with Out of Africa)

September 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark Kaiserman

It's one of my fave Spielbergs, may I add that my fave color, by chance, is purple?

Maybe the impact of the film, on me, was already that huge. Soon after I stopped being shy about the fact I loved that "gay" color.

September 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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