The announcer on BBC2 manages to get Alice Walker’s name wrong when introducing the film – she says “Alice Wood”. Slightly embarrassing.
Here’s a bit of trivia. Until Bridge of Spies, The Color Purple was the only Steven Spielberg film which doesn’t have a score by John Williams. Spielberg approached Quincy Jones to do this score, presumably wanting an authentic black voice for the music. Alice Walker herself really liked the score, and felt it captured the essence of the story. But Jones is a producer more than a composer, and when it was nominated for an Oscar, 12 people shared the nomination.
Two producers on this project were Jon Peters and Peter Guber, who were attached to the project earlier in development, but when Spielberg took the directing reins, he did so on the understanding that he would not have to speak to or meet Peters or Guber, and they were banned from the set.
This is an odd film in Spielberg’s canon. It’s his first real ‘oscar bait’ movie, coming after a lot of popular genre films like ET and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I sometimes think that Spielberg’s career has been adversely affected by his Oscar experience on Jaws. The film was nominated for Best Film, but Spielberg wasn’t even nominated as best director. Admittedly, his place in the directors was taken by Federico Fellini, but that must have stung him deeply, and I always thought that he spent too much of his career making choices based on winning an Oscar. The Color Purple was arguably the first of these.
It’s the story of Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg in her first film role. She’s a young black girl at the turn of the 20th century. Slavery has been gone for decades, but women are still hardly treated better. The film opens with a very young Celie giving birth to a child, her second, by her own father. She doesn’t get to keep either of them, and doesn’t know what happened to them.
Later, a local farmer, only referred to in the story as ‘Mister’, played by a young Danny Glover, asks her father if he can marry Celie’s younger sister. The father won’t let him marry the sister, but offers Celie instead. “She ain’t fresh, though, but I expect you know that.”
Glover’s already got three children, and they don’t welcome Celie – the oldest throws a rock at her head when she arrives.
Glover is an abusive husband. And when Celie’s sister Nettie comes to stay, herself pregnant by their father, Glover has his eye on her. He follows her to school, trying to impress her with his horse riding, and he tries to rape her, but she fights him off, so he throws her out of the house, despite Celie pleading for her to stay.
Nettie promises to write, but Celie never sees any letters. Mister controls the postbox.
Mister’s son Harpo marries Sophia, played by Oprah Whinfrey, She’s a lot stronger than Celie. When Harpo asks Celie how to handle Sophia, Celie tells him he should beat her. Sophia doesn’t stand for this, and eventually leaves.
Mister has a lover, the singer Shug Avery, who seems, to Celie, to be the most beautiful woman imaginable, and when Mister brings her to the house to stay for a while, Celie falls in love with her.
But Shug leaves for Memphis.
Sophia gets in trouble when a patronising white woman asks her if she’d like to be her maid, and she replies ‘Hell no.’ She’s with Lawrence Fishburne at this time.
The woman’s husband slaps her, so she punches him out, but obviously she’s arrested (after another white man hits her in the face with a wrench) and when she’s eventually released, years later, she’s forced to be the woman’s maid after all.
Even one Christmas, when the woman offers to drive her back to her home to visit her children, who she hasn’t seen since she was arrested, the woman gets flustered driving, and decides she can’t stay and must drive her home.
Shug returns, but now with a husband. And for once, the mail arrives when Mister is busy drinking with Shug’s husband, so Shug picks up the mail, and finds a letter from Nettie. She’s been writing all along, and Mister has been keeping the letters.
Nettie was living in Africa, with the woman who ‘adopted’ Celie’s two children, working as missionaries. Celie and Shug searched and found all the other letters, and pieced together the story.
Nettie was going to try to return to America, but they were going to have problems with the immigration service proving they were Americans.
When Shug again leaves to return to Memphis, Celie goes with her, which she announces at the Christmas dinner table. This is a remarkable scene which also includes Sophia returning to her former strong self.
Celie prospers away from the abusive Mister. Her father dies – he was her stepfather, we learn – and she inherits the house and land.
Then, Mister, who has not been prospering since Celie left, receives a letter for Celie from the Immigration service, and instead of just putting it with the others, he acts on it, doing the first decent thing he’s ever done.
Some time later, a car arrives at Celie’s house – it’s her sister Nettie, with Celie’s children Adam and Olivia. The family are finally together again.
When I first watched this movie, as a young man of barely 20, I don’t think I really liked it. The passage of years has, I think, equipped me to appreciate it rather a lot more. If nothing else, I cried a lot.
It’s not necessarily a perfect film – Spielberg’s instincts for the beauty of the image make this the most beautiful film about incest, rape, spousal abuse and institutional racism you’re likely to see, but the central theme of sisterhood is a powerful one.
Over the end credits, the announcer apologises for getting Alice Walker’s name wrong in the intro, which is nice. I wonder if the duty office got any calls.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 22nd December 1991 – 21:20
Following this, there’s a trailer for White Mischief (Charles Dance!) and Platoon.
Then there’s the start of Tom Waits’ performance movie, Big Time. The recording stops after a few minutes of this.