The Colour Purple Review

Although Steven Spielberg would not admit to it in his feature, the literal colour of purple provides a nice juxtaposition to the people he adapts from this Alice Walker novel. Purple is a colour of power and luxury. The harsh and frank irony is not lost on The Colour Purple, depicting forty years in the life of Celie Harris Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg). That is plenty of range, time and talent to explore life and use it to underscore the highs and lows of struggle. Spielberg immediately has the benefit of shocking interactions which were a norm for the 1910s but a horrifying set of scenes to depict in modern times. There is a glaringly obvious reliance on that as Johnson is put through the wringer of life, and the results are mixed.  

With such a strong cast there are reliable performances the whole way through Goldberg is an exceptional draw and Danny Glover plays an abusive role that drags him away from his usual typecast. Albert Johnson is the vile centrepiece Spielberg bases The Colour Purple around. His lack of unique iconography makes reliance on character a necessity. Storming through the muddy streets and straddling the technological boom of the 1900s, the film never gets to grips with the outside world. It is so focused on the story at the heart of a horribly departed family. Had it been dealt with a little more tact then the story would be achingly harsh and emotionally rife. Celie only knows “how to stay alive,” and Spielberg taps into that well enough in the early moments of the feature where the character is completely harmless to others and hopeless to escape her abuser.   

But the lack of depth elsewhere contrasts the fantastic work offered by the leading pair. Desreta Jackson as young Celie is an excellent draw for the cast, but Oprah Winfrey is forgettable in her role as Sofia Johnson. There are strong movements from this cast and they are all framed amicably well by Spielberg, but never push beyond the pale. For such a strong story and objective, there is little that Spielberg can offer in this story. It has a sentimentality and recurring desire to pull at the heartstrings with minimal effort. It is a shame since the genuine moments that could move an audience are shunned in the favour of an obvious reunion that makes up for all the heartbreak. At least the scenes that come before it are strong.   

The Colour Purple is a story of abuse and empowerment. Even the brighter moments of childbirth and love have dark underscores to what they mean for one character or the crawl of struggle they had to push through to get there. Heartbreak and a reliance on a strength of character like no other is the core of The Colour Purple, which, for all its foibles and understated supporting characters, has some decent moments to it. They are the refined characteristics of good people being hit out at by bad characters, and that is never going to fail. Spielberg manages the ensemble well, connects their emotions to the right worries and troubles of the time, but never overhauls it with that unique quality that can come with such pertinent storytelling.   

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