In reaching the halfway point of "31 Days of Spielberg" we arrive at a significant shift in the life of the famous director. As he approached his fortieth birthday, Spielberg felt the desire to want to tell more dramatic, character-driven stories free of any fantasy elements and special effects. If one were to characterize Spielberg’s career as a “journey” (which I have), that journey can be almost neatly divided into three distinct "phases" which, not coincidentally I think, correspond perfectly with three stages of human development. If the early period of his career can be called his professional “childhood” and the later part (from Schindler’s List on) his “adulthood,” then The Color Purple was about to bring Spielberg into his artistic “adolescence,” a time where he desperately wanted to “grow up” and be taken more seriously as a filmmaker but, in spite of his enormous talent, still lacked the maturity, perspective and responsibility of being able to deal in heavier subject matter with anything other than juvenile sensebilities.
The Color Purple began its long and eventful "life" as a Pulliter Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. Basing it partially on the experiences of her own ancestors, the book told the story (through letters and diary entries) of a poor, uneducated black girl named Celie growing up in the American South of the early-to-mid 1900's and deals with the many trials and hardships she faces. Spielberg friend and producing partner Kathleen Kennedy read the book and, knowing that the director wanted to explore different kinds of projects, suggested Steven read it. He did and was so struck by it that he felt he wanted to try his at hand at bringing the story to the big screen. Learning that Warner Bros. had already optioned the rights Spielberg went about the task of trying to get hired as director. However, leery of Hollywood's track record depicting of African-Americans, author Walker had made sure that she retained approval of the script, actors and director. Thus, for the first time in a long while Spielberg had to "audition" for the job. He met with Walker and she was so taken with his enthusiasm (in addition to which she had seen and loved the movie E.T.) that she gave Steven her blessing. Shortly thereafter, Spielberg had second thoughts about being the right one for the job--thinking perhaps the story would be better told by a black director or a woman--and voiced his concern to Quincy Jones who encouraged Spielberg by claiming that he didn't have to be an alien to direct E.T.
As he had Peter Benchley do on Jaws, Spielberg asked Walker if she would be interested in adapting her own novel for the screen. Reluctantly, Walker agreed and penned a screenpla--which, interestingly, she entitled Look For Me in the Sunset--that she ended up being so dissatisfied with that she begged Spielberg not to use it (though she did end up very involved in the filmmaking process, being on the set quite a bit serving as consultant). The script was instead written by Dutch-born Menno Meyjes (who wrote the teleplay to the Amazing Stories episode "The Mission"). Once again, Allen Daviau served as cinematographer and Michael Kahn edited the picture but there was one notable absence from Spielberg's usual filmmaking "company": composer John Williams. Although it wasn't the first time Spielberg hadn't used Williams since Sugarland Express (both the "Kick the Can" segment of Twilight Zone and Poltergiest were scored by Jerry Goldsmith) it was the first--and as it turned out only--feature film directed solely by Spielberg to not feature a Williams score. Instead Spielberg employed the musical talents of co-producer Quincy Jones. The interesting thing about this switch, though, is that the result is still very "Williams-esque" in style and tone, which seems to suggest that regardless of who scores a Spielberg film, the material invariably inspires a uniquely "Spielbergian" sound.
In casting the film, Spielberg followed his usual philosophy of hiring the people that he thought worked best in the roles, even if they were relatively new and inexperienced. Comedienne Whoopi Goldberg (in her debut acting role) was given the seminal part of Celie, Witness and Places in the Heart star Danny Glover played the abusive "Mister," another first-time actress named Oprah Winfrey played the fiery Sofia, Willard E. Pugh played Sofia's husband Harpo (which, ironically, is "Oprah" spelled backwards) and Margaret Avery played the beautiful blues singer Shug Avery. Coincidentally, Spielberg had already worked with Avery over 12 years earlier in his made-for-TV movie Something Evil (in which she played a very small part).
Filming began in July of 1985 and even before production started, the film was surrounded by controversy. Legrad H. Clegg II, head of a group called the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, said: "The elevation of Alice Walker's book to the status of a movie will be devastating to the black community. The book's degradation of the black male and its subtle promotion of lesbianism as an alternative to failed heterosexual relationships conveys a negative message that is destructive to the black family." When Clegg's group demanded a prescreeing of the film and was turned down, there were demonstrations outside the offices of Quincy Jones.
On the other side of the controversy, however, stood passionate proponents of the book who were extremely skeptical that Spielberg (a white Jewish male known for his sentinemtality) was the best choice to direct a dark, gritty story of a victimized black woman. Despite his own doubts Spielberg took a defensive position: "The issue was not the color of my skin but whether I'd make a good movie out of the book." His comments about understanding the pangs of prejudice due to his own bouts with anti-Semitism as a child (though he tried to make clear that his childhood troubles didn't even come close to approaching the level of the character Celie's) probably didn't do much to ease the concerns of his detractors.
Another source of contention was the film's treatment of homosexuality (a significant element in the book). Feeling at the time that mainstream audiences would not be ready for a scene where a woman de-flowers another woman, Spielberg chose to stage the scene between Celie and Shug in a far more subtle and ambiguous (and in his words "poetic") manner. In the film the two merely share a kiss, but whether it is a kiss of romantic love or of simple affection is never made clear. While that approach might have appealed more to conservative theatregoers, while upsetting more liberal ones, it has been said that the decision was based less on Spielberg's discomfort and more on mere fiscal intentions, i.e. to make a PG-13 film rather than an R film allowing more people to see it and, consequently, earning the film more money. It definitely did little to allay the common criticism of Spielberg that his films were devoid of any kind of sex, straight or otherwise. Although at the time Walker was none too pleased with the end result, she eventually decided that she liked the way the scene was done (finding that it emphasized the "sweetness" of the relationship more). In an interesting twist of fate, Spielberg has regretted not going for a more frank and honest interpretation of that exchange.
Another problem Spielberg discovered in the filming of the movie was how hard it was to represent the actual color purple on screen (early on Spielberg had toyed with the idea of shooting The Color Purple in black-and-white but quickly decided that it wouldn't work). The opening sequence, set in a field of flowers, provided particular difficulty as the flowers that were planted were called purple on the packages the seeds came in, but ended up looking more pink. Enormous amounts of discussion occurred over what really was purple and what was pink. The filmmakers ultimately ended up spray-painting a number of the flowers that were closer to the camera (a problem that could easily be solved today digitally) and Daviau had to go into the lab and "re-time" everything to get it to turn out right. In the end, Spielberg was never completely happy with the result.
Despite the tremendous difference between the film's intense subject matter (rape, incest, abuse, racism, etc) and Spielberg's usual fare, it does contain a few of the director's recurring themes. Certainly family is central in The Color Purple (particularly family dysfunction which is probably more potent here than in any other Spielberg story). In fact, in a fascinating bit of providence--of life imitating art--on the day Spielberg shot the film's birth scene, his then wife Amy Irving went into labor and eventually gave birth to Spielberg's firstborn child Max (later, Spielberg used the sound of his own son crying for the newborn infant in the scene). There is also a very strong motherly thread running through the entire story as Celie tries to find the children that she had by her father. Finally, Celie's talk of God and the afterlife (she addresses all of her letters to him) as well as Sofia's eventual affirmation of God's existence near the end of the movie both come back to the religious/metaphysical themes that appear in numerous Spielberg films.
Though the movie was heavily criticized upon its release, it was nonetheless nominated for 11 Oscars. Interestingly, it didn't receive a single one (tying it with 1977's The Turning Point for the record of the most nominations without a win). One of the most bizarre exclusions, though, was the ignoring of Spielberg as director. This was a particularly harsh snub and caused yet another stir for a film that already had its fair share of controversy. While people who worked on the film expressed disbelief and sadness that Spielberg wasn't recognized for the rather sizable part he played in bringing The Color Purple to the big screen, they all still felt priveleged to have been involved in it and even now speak very highly of Spielberg as a director (with Danny Glover actually expressing admiration for Spielberg's "courage"). The experience seemed to be a pleasant one for everyone involved. Many years later, in fact, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones chose to revisit the story of Celie, Shug and Nettie in a Broadway stage musical version of The Color Purple that they produced. The show has won numerous awards and still tours the country today.
After all the accolades and criticisms, all the love and controversy, all the behind-the-scenes stories and the passage of over twenty years, the film today is itself a bit of a mixed bag. It's a good--though certainly not a great--Spielberg movie. As usual, it cannot be faulted at all from a technical standpoint (Spielberg's use of transitions between scenes are among the best he's ever used). The staging of scenes, though many feel mechanical in nature, is at times impeccable. The moment when Danny Glover's "Mister" throws young Celie's sister out of the house is particularly effective (Spielberg's direction to the young actress playing Nettie was simply: "Whatever happens, don't let him separate the two of you."). It even resulted in a powerful and unscripted moment where the girl playing Nettie screamed out "WHY? WHY?". Also, the look of the movie is quite stunning and gorgeous. In fact, it is almost too beautiful given the nature of the film's content (it feels at times sort of surreal) and Spielberg's abounding optimism and necessity to be positive make for a very confused finished product. His heavy-handed sentimentality, appropriate perhaps in fantasy films like Close Encounters and E.T., comes off as more pedantic and preachy and despite some strong character development at various points in the story (Spielberg did want to make a movie that was only about people after all), several characterizations come off as exeggarted and cartoony. Nevertheless, there are many moving moments throughout. The finale, where Celie and Nettie are reuinted, is actually quite extraordinary. Roger Ebert wrote about the scene: "The affirmation at the end of the film is so joyous that this is one of the few movies in a long time that inspires tears of happiness, and earns them... It is one of the great heart-rending moments in the movies." Indeed, upon reviewing it recently I still found myself (in spite of my own reluctance and the numerous glaring flaws in the film) tearing up once or twice.
Many have spoken about the important impact the film had on the inclusion of more African-American actors and black-themed stories in major big-budget Hollywood movies and that is certainly nothing to be dismissed. The film also represents, in my opinion, the best acting work ever done by both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (of which they are, to this day, very proud) who were both included among the many Oscar nominations the film received. As far as the impact of the film on Spielberg's life/career, The Color Purple represents his first attempt to "break out" of his normal comfort zone. Spielberg took a tremendous risk with The Color Purple and although it might not have completely worked out at the time, one can't blame him for trying to challenge himself as an artist, to strech his cinematic talents and push himself into new and provocative areas. It was the first step in a direction that would ultimately result in some of his best work, which lay not too far ahead.
TOMORROW: Spielberg's Empire