It may be 30 years old, but The Color Purple feels as fresh and bold today as it did then, perhaps more so, now that time has passed and the surprise of a white Jewish director taking on a seminal story of African-American self-worth has passed. What we're left with is the film itself, not the manufactured controversy of whether Spielberg was the right person to make this movie: He was.
The Color Purple is, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial a few years before it, the story of an outsider, a heroine whose heart has been torn apart and who needs an unexpected visitor to provide her the courage and strength she needs to find her own place. It is every bit as much about growing up and coming in to the world as Spielberg's movies about American suburbia, and even more affecting because Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) doesn't physically look like the boys and men who had been Spielberg's favorite subjects until then.
She is a poor black woman in the American South who, in the first few minutes of the movie, gives birth to a child conceived when she was raped by her father. She is placed into a life of servitude to a man (Danny Glover) who despises her, and loses what shreds of self-confidence she has when her incestuous, abusive father tells her, "You've got the ugliest smile this side of creation." The rape, the abuse, the physical pain was one thing; it's those nine words that haunt her the rest of her life.
Celie is played as a woman by Goldberg, but for the first 45 minutes of the film, she's portrayed with extraordinary clarity by Desreta Jackson, who has the unenviable task of setting the parameters of this soul-shattered person. Her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia), has managed to keep her strength of self, and resolves to be with Celie always and forever. But when she dares to resist an attempted rape by Celie's husband, she is thrown from the house physically and spiritually in one of the most unforgettable scenes in all of Spielberg's work.
Nettie's forced exile demonstrates all of Spielberg's remarkable abilities as a filmmaker -- he elicits fearless work from the actors, knows exactly what makes the raw and painful emotion of the scene work, and films it all with a fluid beauty that observes the scene in full and from an arm's length. It's a moment that today would be filled with a dozen different angles from shaky, hand-held cameras, but Spielberg captures a scene of intense anguish with the same long tracking shots he might previously have reserved for a moment of majesty and wonder in a movie like Close Encounters. If the imagery weren't so brutal, the scene would be pretty.
The moment is the heart of The Color Purple, and it's also why the film was frequently criticized. Spielberg isn't afraid to make his movie beautiful, when ugly would have been such an easier way to go. But Spielberg knows (or, at least, back then, knew) that we go to the movies to see a heightened reality, to see the world presented theatrically. Celie and Nettie's separation defines The Color Purple as a Spielberg film -- and as a special film -- because of its sentimentality.
The rest of the movie is like that, too. Although it's a little disjointed and rambling in its latter half, it's always a ravishingly good-looking movie, with cinematography by Alan Daviau, whose work also helped define such Spielberg movies as Empire of the Sun, E.T. and the Spielberg segment of The Twilight Zone (not to mention one of my other favorite movies, Defending Your Life). His clean, sharp images are accompanied by a beautiful score by Quincy Jones (this is the only Spielberg film not scored by John Williams) and indelible performances by Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey. They come together in a sort of cinematic alchemy.
The Color Purple may make Celie's experience look too pretty -- but doesn't a character like Celie deserve that? What her painful, impossible life lacks in inner beauty, The Color Purple balances by always showing the outward beauty that surrounds her, the beauty her anguish and turmoil never let her see until the majestic, stirring final scene in which it all, at long last, reveals itself to her eyes and to her heart.