It was certainly unintended, but it’s sort of appropriate that The Color Purple comes in at #11 on this list. Eleven was both the number of Academy Awards the film was nominated for … and the number it didn’t win come Oscar night. The shut-out was pretty surprising, especially considering Spielberg won his first Directors Guild Award for his work. But Oscar had a long history of bypassing him up to that point, the classic bias of the generally older Academy members against one so successful so young. They sort of apologized the following year by giving him the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award — a lifetime achievement award Spielberg won at the ripe old age of 40.
The Color Purple got labelled as Spielberg’s first “grown-up” movie (most folks weren’t counting The Sugarland Express at the time), since there’s no sharks or aliens or bullwhip wielding archeologists in it. And while that sells some of the themes of Jaws and Close Encounters and E.T. a little short — they’re about a lot more than just sharks and aliens — at the time this really did feel like Spielberg’s swing for the fences of respectability. And there were plenty of pitfalls waiting for him. Some thought he shouldn’t even be trying something as complex as adapting Alice Walker’s novel. Some thought he had no business directing such an inherently African-American story. Once the film was released, he got grief for the uniformly negative male characters, his shying away from the book’s prominent lesbian themes, and what was seen as the “Spielbergization” of some of the violence in the book. Considering all of this, it’s pretty amazing the film got eleven nominations at all, and is still regarded as highly as it is.
Besides, it’s not like the men are unrelentingly evil, except maybe for Old Mister, and even he seems to wield authority more from tradition than any actual power on his part. There’s certainly a deep-set pattern of male dominance on display, but what’s demonstrated over and over again is that those men may break the body, but in the end, they’re never able to break the mind or the spirit. In fact, it’s their very adherence to the old ways that eventually pushes into motion the events that knock them down of their thrones. And while it doesn’t atone for the way he treats Celie, and while it could be considered to have been done under duress, Mister does eventually do the right thing, and chooses not to try to claim any recognition for the act. He’s content to drift by in the foreground while Celie has her reunion with her sister. He maybe hasn’t earned forgiveness, but he’s at least earned some peace.
And if anything, this is a woman’s story, so it makes sense the men should be somewhat on the periphery and not as sharply drawn as the women who mean so much to Celie. I know the book takes the relationship between Celie and Shug to a sexual level, but I can also see where Spielberg the filmmaker didn’t feel comfortable enough to get into a clear portrayal of that. He certainly hints at it — it’s hard to read the scene where Celie and Shug exchange chaste kisses only for the camera to pan down to their hand clenched tightly any other way — but he seems more at ease letting the audience imagine that intimacy rather than coming right out and showing it. If it’s a weakness of the film, it’s only so in the sense that Spielberg may not have had, at this point in his career, the self-confidence to attempt to show something like this, and that he crafted a narrative that didn’t need to show an explicitly sexual relationship between those two characters.
I sort of don’t blame Spielberg for focusing on the hope rather than the pain here. He’s always been a pretty hopeful filmmaker, and if that gets him a reputation as a sentimental softy, well so be it. I don’t think his version of The Color Purple means people aren’t free to still turn to and prefer the book. Adaptation is a funny thing; having just seen the Harry Potter film series wrap up with yet another entry that plays more like a visual guided tour of the book rather than an actual film, it’s easy to appreciate a director who takes a book and puts their own interpretation on it, even if that interpretation might not be everybody’s cup of tea.
Tomorrow: Cadillac of the skies.