October 12, 2012

Queer Review: The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Menno Meyjes. Based upon the novel by Alice Walker.
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Willard E. Pugh, Akosua Busia, Desreta Jackson, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Dana Ivey, Susan Beaubian, Carl Anderson

Steven Spielbergs' first attempt at making a serious/adult film falls flat for a variety of reasons. While highlighting a handful of good to brilliant performances (Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey) the screenplay unfortunately paints nearly every element, from characterization to tone, in the most melodramatic method imaginable. Worse the saphic relationship between Celia and Shug was drastically toned down from what was present in the book.

Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) is a poor black women in the deep south during the Jim Crow era. Her abusive husband, Albert (Danny Glover), causes her to be estranged from her sister Nettie Harris (Akosua Busia) and hides any letters Nettie sends to Celie. However, Celie finds some comfort in a relationship with Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) and the two form an intimate relationship.

The Queering
Steven Spielbergs' first major blockbuster (Jaws) succeeded mainly by not showing the monstrous shark early and often, but rather through glimpses and intimation. When dealing with a film about domestic violence, the technique of hide, don't show, is not so effective. We know that Celie is subjected to horrible abuses throughout her life. Her father rapes her and she has two children that she believes he killed. She is then later "given" (in a scene reminiscent of a slave being sold at auction) to her husband Albert, who treats her alternatively like a servant, a prostitute, and a punching bag.

However, we know this mostly thanks to the dialogue, we are only shown on screen glimpses and intimations of the horrors of Celies' life. Ultimately, I could not help but feel that rather than exposing the horrors of rape and domestic violence, Spielberg ends up romanticizing these things to a degree. I have no problems with a film showing a strong female character overcoming a horrific situation, but The Color Purple never really feels like it's doing this. Instead, I felt like I was watching an amateur boxer dancing clumsily around these issues but never really delivering the goods.

If one wishes to see a film that deals honestly with the issues of poverty, domestic violence, as well as ethnicity and race, I would highly recommend Once Were Warriors, as one example of a film that pulls no punches on these issues.

As for the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, it is made fairly explicit in one scene that these two are becoming intimate lovers. However, from what I understand (having never read the book by Alice Walker) that this relationship was much better developed and explored on the written page.

There is also a brief but rather strong subtext I noticed that developed between Albert and Shugs' husband. In the first scene where Shugs' husband shows up, the two men exchange meaningful glances. Soon they're having fun smashing smashing Easter eggs on each others foreheads. From what I understand, this is not typical of male bonding but in any case they're shown wandering off into a nearby field, arms around each others shoulders, presumably to have sex, er as a plot convenience to give Celie and Shug time to go through the house so that they could find the letters Nettie had sent to Celia that Albert had deliberately hidden (rather than say... burned).

Overall, The Color Purple suffers from an embarrassingly bad script, which paints using only strokes a mile wide and leaves no cliche unturned. Not only that but Spielberg, who is nominally one of the most technically accomplished directors in Hollywood, has created with The Color Purple his most technically incompetent film ever (at least of those I've seen). There are some nice transitions here and there, but overall, most of the early scenes are confusing, the cinematography is frequently uninspired, and family relationships between the minor characters are nearly impossible to figure out without a cheat sheet. Spielberg certainly is not helped though by the horribly schmaltzy and frequently inappropriate score by Quincy Jones.

The title of The Color Purple refers to the need of people (and things apparently) to be loved. While I did not hate Speilbergs' interpretation of Alice Walkers' novel, I can not say that I loved it either. This is yet another movie that is pretty much only for those with a strong interest in the history of queer cinema.

The Rating
** out of ****


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