Movie Review on Spielberg’s The Color Purple

In Movie Reviews on May 16, 2011 by azybazy

The aim of this review is to focus on the politics in the adaptation of the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker to the film The Color Purple directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. In doing so, this review shall firstly discuss the significance of the period in which the film was made. Secondly, it shall highlight the politics behind the movie being a Hollywood production directed by Steven Spielberg. Thirdly, this review shall discuss the manner in which the novel has been interpreted in the movie primarily through the absence of the theme of nationalism. Furthermore, the portrayal of the character of Mister and Shugs in the movie shall also be discussed in relation to the novel in order to identify the significance of these editorial decisions. Finally, this review shall discuss the images of the two sisters clapping together in contributing greatly to the visual effect of the film.

Significantly, the movie The Color Purple was released in a time period where there was an outburst of various forms of entertainment that showcased the talent of African American artists and the life style of affluent African Americans on American Television channels. The popular sitcom The Cosby Show starring Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashād was firstly aired in 1984. This program was one of the first sitcoms that dealt with themes such as the Civil Rights Movement, African-American culture and African culture. These themes were represented by artists and musicians such as Jacob Lawrence, Miles Davis, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Miriam Makeba. Furthermore, during the period of 1985 two other significant sit coms consisting primarily of an African American cast were also firstly aired which focused on the lifestyle of African Americans. The entertainment program 227 was high-rated show set in a predominately Black neighborhood. Secondly, the television show Amen was also set in and around a Philadelphia-based black church. Interestingly, it was during this period that the first syndicated talk show hosted by an African American, Oprah Winfrey, was aired. Moreover, the song ‘We are the world’ was recorded by the Super group of USA for Africa in 1985. This song is also included as a part of showcasing African American talent due to two distinct reasons. Firstly, it was written by African American artists Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie while it was produced by Quincy Jones, who also produces the Music for the movie The Color Purple. Secondly, the proceeds collected from the sales of this record were utilized to assist those who were affected by the earthquake in Haiti. Hence I felt that this is rather interesting as it is an attempt made predominantly by the African Americans to give back to the nation of their ancestors. In that sense, the period in which the movie was released is rather significant as it seems to be a period in which many African American artists were showcasing their talents. Therefore, I believe that Steven Spielberg succumbed to this trend of showcasing African American talent and their lifestyles by producing a movie that involves an African American cast that engages with the toils average African Americans faced during the 1930’s.

The Hollywood production of The Color Purple is rather interesting to analyze as it does not depict every character and every relationship that is mentioned in the novel as Alice Walker intended it to be. For example Alice Walker clearly suggests that Celie and Shug share a sexual relationship that is very intimate and passionate through lines such as ‘she say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth…I kiss her back…us kiss and kiss till us hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other’ (pg.103). However, in the movie this relationship is not depicted as sexually intense as in the novel. In fact even the song Shug dedicates to Celie repeats the word ‘sister’ so much so that it undervalues the sexual relationship they share. I believe that Spielberg has not depicted this relationship shared by Celie and Shug as not very sexual as presented by Walker although there is one scene in the movie where Celie and Shug kiss each other in the lip cheek and forehead.I believe that this is primarily due to the fact that homosexuality was seen as very subversive and controversial to the audience of Hollywood production that mostly conform to mainstream culture. However, one can interpret this scene in the movie where Celie and Shug kiss as one of ‘connotative homosexuality’. Benshoff and Griffin state that connotative homosexuality means implying or suggesting homosexuality in a very subtle way rather than stating it out right. They further mention that connotative homosexuality became the usual way in which classical Hollywood cinema depicts gays and lesbians as Hollywood movies were expected to conform to the norms of society. According to the website Film Reference, Gay and lesbian concerns and characters often found varied representations outside the Hollywood industry, in foreign, experimental, and documentary filmmaking
Thus it is evident that Spielberg has also used this technique in order to imply that Celie and Shug shared a lesbian relationship. Consequently, this is done in order refrain from making an obvious statement on their tendencies of homosexuality which may result is the censorship of the movie due its subversiveness. Therefore, I believe that the homosexual relationship has been underscored greatly in the movie as opposed to the novel due to the nature of the movie being a Hollywood production.

It is also interesting to note that a Jewish white male has taken the initiative to direct a movie that is based on a novel written by an African American feminist who deals with their bitter experiences. I personally feel that the way in which Spielberg presented the character of Shug in the movie did not do justice to the feminist author’s portrayal of this ‘wild woman’. As a result I agree with Featherstone’s (1985) comment that Hollywood is notoriously insensitive to the concerns of women and people of color. This is because in the novel Shug is presented as a very headstrong, independent and a ‘wild woman’ who is agentive. The fact that she decides to sing and dance to the public which was considered a daring venture for a lady clearly depicts her independent nature. However, in the movie she is depicted as one who constantly attempts to seek forgiveness from her farther for disappointing him with her conduct. The fact that she says ‘see daddy, sinners have souls too’ in the scene where she leads her audience to the church clearly indicates her loss of  pride and value for her rebellious conduct. Dix (1985) also mentions that ‘To have this woman come back to the church and into the embrace of her father, the preacher who had done sermons about her lifestyle as sin incarnate, definitely undercuts the rebel image of Shug and undercuts the movie´s overall strong stand against patriarchy.” Therefore, I feel that Spielberg through the portrayal of Shrug as vulnerable is being patriarchal by depicting Shrug as susceptible to men. Hence the weaker portrayal of Shug in the movie can be interpreted as the subtle way in which the male director of the movie undermines the feminist agenda that was placed in Walker’s novel.

Significantly, Spielberg’s movie does not discuss the themes of nationalism that was raised in Waker’s novel. The author in the novel attempts to highlight the way in which the African Americans did not feel a part of the nation through two significant instances. Firstly, it is brought out effectively through the lines ‘White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th, say Harpo, so most black folks don’t have to work. Us spend day celebrating each other’ (pg.261). Secondly, its brought out through the lines ‘The way you know who discover America, Nettie say, is think bout cucumbers’. I believe Walker through these instances effectively show the way in which the African Americans do not feel a part of America due to the way in which they were exploited as a result of the institution of slavery by Americans. The fact that this theme is absent in Spielberg’s Hollywood production can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, it shows that the director does not want to create a form of unease for the American audience by provoking them to feel guilty for their ancestor’s treatment towards the African Americans. Secondly, it also shows the way in which the director himself is not willing to take responsibility as a white American for creating this form of unpatriotic nature within the African Americans. Therefore, I believe that Spielberg’s attempt in eliminating this unpatriotic nature within the characters in the movie clearly shows that he does not want to address this issue which may result in a form of controversy.

Furthermore, the fact that this movie does not depict the gradual development of Mister’s character is rather significant. In the novel Mister is portrayed positively towards the end although he is represented disapprovingly through his treatment towards Celie at the beginning. The lines ‘After all the evil he done I know why I don’t hate him…Plus look like he appreciate some of the things God was playful enough to make. I mean when you talk to him now he really listen…it feel like a new experience’ (pg.236). These lines clearly indicate that towards the end Mister did transform to a sensible and approachable person even to Celie to whom he was the most vindictive and vengeful to. Therefore, it can be concluded that Walker did not degrade African American men entirely for their inconsiderate nature towards their women through her transformation of the her male protagonist. However, the fact that Spielberg does not highlight this transformation on the character of Mister can be due to his intention of presenting the male characters as wicked and unsophisticated. I personally feel that Spielberg made a conscious choice to not highlight the transformation in Mister’s character in order to place blame on the African American male. This I believe is done in order to make sure that the audience identifies the African American male as the oppressor rather than the white man who instigated the institution of slavery. Furthermore, the fact that the director eliminates the instance where Sophia rebukes the Anglo Americans by saying ‘Some colored people so scared of whitefolks they claim to love the cotton gin’ (pg.240) clearly shows that the director is placing the African American male as the cause for the deterioration of the lives of these women.

The image of Celie and Nettie clapping hands to the song ‘You and me us never part’ at the beginning and in the middle of the movie adds greatly to the visual effect of the film. This is because this image firstly, portrayed right at the beginning. This clearly enlightens the audience about the vey close relationship the sisters’ share. The fact that they engage in this activity even when Nettie is forced to leave the house it saddens the audience greatly as it effectively highlights the pain and trauma that the sisters go through due to their partition. Furthermore, I believe that this image functions for a strategic purpose of exposing the conclusion of the movie by indicating that ‘aint no ocean ain’t no sea’ can part them from each other. These words have a literal meaning due to that fact that Nettie and Celie managed to get together although they were in different countries at a certain point in time. Moreover, the image of the two sisters clapping their hands to the song plays a significant role in highlighting the emphasis placed on the relationship of sisterhood. Although Spielberg does not emphasize the sexual and intimate relationship shared between Shug and Celie due to its controversial nature within mainstream Hollywood culture, he does not underscore the relationship of the sisters as this relationship is accepted within the societal norms of society. Therefore, I believe that Spielberg places emphasis to this image also because he promotes relationships that are accepted within social conventions. In that sense, this image plays a significant role on many levels as highlighted above.

In conclusion, it is evident that Spielberg’s Hollywood production The Color Purple does not entirely conform to the depictions of characters and relationships as Walker intended them to be. In that sense it is very interesting to analyze this movie due to two reasons. Firstly, because it provides an opportunity to the audience to evaluate the way in which a narrative from the perspective of a race that was previously enslaved is affected when it is represented through a medium such as Hollywood. Secondly, because it provides an opportunity to evaluate the way in which a white male director presents the feminist agenda of an African American female. This was clearly brought out in the review through the discussion of the character portrayal of Mister, Shug and the relationship shared between Celie and Shug. Hence I believe that Spielberg’s rendition of ‘The Color Purple’ is very significant as it clearly depicts the way in he promotes societal norms that are pertinent to the American society.


2 Responses to “Movie Review on Spielberg’s The Color Purple”

  1. here ya’ go!!

  2. […] source:…/ […]

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