Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 34 min.
Release Date: December 18th, 1985 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Willard Pugh, Akosua Busia, Desreta Jackson, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Laurence Fishburne
n the winter of 1909, yet another child is born to 14-year-old Celie Johnson, after her father rapes her. And those babies are taken away after birth, destined for unknown fates. Despite the miserableness of her existence, she remains curiously optimistic, though she worries most about her younger sister Nettie, who could be in the same danger of familial violence. But she’s largely powerless to intervene, especially when abusive neighbor Albert (Danny Glover) stops by to ask for one of the girls as a wife. Celie ends up in the role, additionally forced to take care of the man’s children, who are reluctant to have a new mother.
“I’ll take care of you. With God’s help.” Springtime isn’t any kinder; after Nettie’s father’s advances become too threatening, she runs away to stay with Celie – though Albert poses the very same menace. Yet with the two girls together, they find a momentary contentedness in playing, singing, and – most importantly – learning to read and write. It’s not to last, however; tragedy, cruelty, and separation are destined to intrude. “I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive.”
As dour as the onscreen actions appear, the music remains lighthearted and chirpy and intermittently comical – a strangely unfitting contrast, though it bears all the hallmarks of a Steven Spielberg film. The subject matter doesn’t contain many of the auteur’s other notable touches, save for a few brief moments of humor and slapstick, but the initial perspective from a child’s viewpoint is certainly a recognizable technique. At least, mining a bit of blitheness from the most barbarous of situations does manage to prevent the film from being statically dismal (despite not being the best choice to helm this adaptation, his directorial choices are periodically adept).
As the years pass, moving from the 1910s to the ’20s and through the ’30s, charting Celie’s limited existence, the arrivals and departures of various colorful characters, and the steadily evolving relationships between the family members, it becomes clearer just how attentive and detailed the script is (lending to a marginally overlong runtime). These personas are fully fleshed-out, superbly developed roles that allow viewers to have genuine concerns for their outcomes – whether they be of righteous comeuppance or some glimmer of salvation. A hint of a history lesson wafts through the proceedings (it’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker), but it’s predominantly a tale of deeply personal tragedies and dramas that shape behaviors, outlooks, and beliefs.
Whoopi Goldberg (in her first major turn), who portrays the older Celie, is a revelation. Supporting parts by Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery (whose story is also poignant), Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Willard Pugh, and others, are well-cast, but Goldberg is the highlight, remarkably demonstrating, with nuance and potency, the hapless differences in lives and lots, as some are seemingly blessed with choices and control, while others are doomed to be directed and confined (moved from one physical or metaphorical jail to the next). The quietest, subtlest moments prove to be the most powerful; minimal actions of tenderness are profoundly moving, and Goldberg accomplishes so much with mere expressions.
While it unfolds like a biography, it occasionally feels as if wandering, not always sure of which direction – or which characters – it wants to follow, with many events transpiring out of convenience or to pull at heartstrings, rather than with an eye for sensibility and realism (an editing decision that may have been made to encompass more of the source material). In its biographical structuring, the unspoken other presence, of course, is racism, though the bulk of the story tracks the ways in which women are treated disparately within the black community itself, rather than their maltreatment at the hands of bigoted outsiders. Still, there’s an undeniable severity when anticipated prejudices rear their ugly heads, influencing the aftermaths of consequential conflicts. In the end, however, the focus returns to Celie, the mystery of her missing sister and her lack of communications (which is entirely predictable), and the long-awaited showdown with Albert (after which, the denouement carries on for too long); Celie’s journey, though wrought with hardships, is thought-provoking, educational, nerve-wracking and, finally, wholesome and triumphant, boasting a tear-jerking closing sequence.
– Mike Massie