Part of the marvel and elegance in 'The Color Purple' is that it comes from Steven Spielberg — his first drama. It's easy to imagine any other director at the time wanting to make a strict adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which in all honesty would have been a mistake. The book is a difficult read, with explicit descriptions of violence and abuse, and Spielberg made the right choice. This isn't a movie version of Walker's book. This is a Spielberg movie. It's filled with a sense of style and wonderment within one woman's unforgiving life. What Spielberg created is a film with lavish beauty that intentionally contradicts the subject matter, a fairytale-like and sorrowful story about something we take for granted within our own lives: a sense of identity.
To capture this unifying idea, along with other various thematic elements, Spielberg designs a wealth of richly expressive imagery, demonstrating his mastery and skill behind the camera. It's a creative attribute we later see in such films as 'Schindler's List' and 'Munich.' What we see on screen and how we see it becomes an important motif. Walker's novel, for example, is written as a series of personal letters and diary entries by Celie Harris, relating random events in and around the Johnson house. Spielberg conveys this by making the overall picture feel episodic, as brief glimpses into the lives of early 20th Century women. They often appear as if surviving a world dominated by men. Or more to the point, they exist in a repressive environment, a life where men determine their being.
At the center of all this is the awfully timid Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg in a heart-rending performance. Her life of suffering begins incredibly early, and she's never allowed to grow into her own person. Our introduction to her is one of distressing irony. The opening sequence shows two girls playing and frolicking in an open field of purple flowers, a scene we later revisit at the end with beautiful poignancy. It's an idyllic image of youth and innocence that's suddenly interrupted as one of the girls waddles from out of the tall grass to reveal she's pregnant. This is quickly followed by the demeaning comments of their father and the realization that he's responsible for her current state.
Afterwards, we see Celie auctioned for marriage to a complete stranger, a man she refers to only as "Mister" (Danny Glover). As she turns for him, the camera moves up to emulate his point of view while on horseback, looking down upon her like an object. When in her perspective, we are looking upwards at Mister, clearly insinuating the unbalance and inequality of the relationship. This image is surprisingly reversed at the end of the second act when Celie finally builds the courage to raise a hand at Mister. Their first night together, we see an extensive collection of leather pant belts rattling against the headboard, hanging above Celie's head. It's a haunting image that foreshadows the form of slavery she's about to endure in her new home. We see men always in the position of power, ruling over her both mentally and physically. And she's not alone.
Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) is arguably the most tragic figure of the entire narrative because her self-assured and daring personality — a refusal to submit to anyone — is ironically her downfall. One single mistake made from an instinctive reaction transforms a strong-willed person to a quietly submissive individual. Her act of self-defense serves as part of a larger leitmotif — depictions of how hands are used throughout the film. We see her often with hands swinging at her side or with clinched fists. But after her prison release, those same hands are hidden in her lap or pretty much useless for the simplest tasks like picking groceries.
This all relates back to Celie repeating the same line from the second chapter of Oliver Twist as well as hinting at the cycle of abuse ("Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand.") The same advice for raising children is shared for keeping a wife ("You have to let 'em know who got the upper hand"). Celie uses her hands to hide her smile. She later learns to keep them down while laughing at herself in the mirror, a nice moment of self-actualization. During an intimate conversation with another woman, she discovers hands can be used for caressing.
Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) is another important person in Celie's life because over the years, she has become a fantasy of womanhood thanks to Mister's adoration of her. To Celie, she seems satisfied with the type of glamorous freedom she possesses. But what Celie doesn't see is that she, too, is objectified by the ogling of men and more importantly, she's dependent on their approval, specifically her father. Shug Avery also serves as the chief catalyst to Celie's growth as a person. On the one hand, she helps her rediscover her love for her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia). On the other, she's the turning point in Celie realizing that Mister is more complex than the angry, abusive husband she knows.
Many scenes throughout 'The Color Purple' are filled with ugly acts of violence, but Steven Spielberg balances them with amazing shots of beauty. One of the most impressive aspects of the film is a montage sequence which sees Celie reading her sister's letter. The transitions between the two women's vastly different lives are absolutely remarkable and ingeniously fluid, creating a lovely, rhythmic movement that allows for Celie, as well as the audience, to forget her dreadful life. Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, Celie and we are brought back to reality with a single slap of the face. As blood drips slowly over her lip, we notice the scene has changed to a miserable, oppressive gray in the background. It's an astonishing sequence done brilliantly by Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau, and it's only one of hundreds seen throughout this marvelous film.
Ultimately, 'The Color Purple' is an inspiring tale that continues to resonate with terrific emotional depth. It's not only a story about women surviving subjugation, but it's also about us, the ways we treat each other. It shows how life is filled with as much pain and suffering as it is with beauty and comedy — shared moments of rich laughter mixed with seemingly endless tears. And how sometimes, life comes with incredible and unexpected miracles which are beyond description and belief.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Warner Home Video brings Steven Spielberg's 'The Color Purple' to Blu-ray in an attractive DigiBook case that includes glossy color photographs and quotes from the film, cast and director biographies, trivia, and two uncredited liner notes about the production. The BD50, Region Free disc goes straight to the main menu with the standard selection of options.
'The Color Purple' arrives to Blu-ray with a very good picture quality, although I have a feeling many will not be too impressed with the results. We've seen better catalog releases in the past, but this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) is quite attractive and consistent, a nice upgrade from its standard def counterparts.
The video shows strong definition in various outdoor sequences in and around the fields where children play or adults perform farm work. Foliage, the petals of flowers, grass and the grain fibers of wood are clearly visible throughout with only a very few instances of softness. The stitching on clothing and eccentric accessories on hats is distinct, while the smallest flaws and scratches on furniture and the exteriors of buildings are discernible. During poorly-lit interiors, like Harpo's "jut-joint" or Celie's more intimate moments, the darker portions of the image allow for plenty of perceptible detail to come through.
Black levels are accurate and well-rendered, while a pleasingly bright contrast provides the picture with great clarity. The color palette is an important element to the story and cinematography, and the high-def transfer displays primaries with rich vibrancy while secondary hues are varied and spirited. Facial complexions appear healthy and natural from beginning to end, with fine, lifelike texture in close-ups. All things considered, 'The Color Purple' looks beautiful on Blu-ray, a good video presentation for a gut-wrenching motion picture.
Originally recorded in Dolby Stereo, the high-rez audio for this Steven Spielberg production sounds great, with a few wonderful moments of immersion strewn about. The rears provide some fairly attractive ambiance with the very faint sounds of wind, birds and other small critter life inhabiting the rural farmlands of Georgia. Especially in those scenes with loud music and Quincy Jones' original score, listeners are pulled into the drama by the good imaging. This isn't always a consistent attribute of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, but it's enough to enhance the soundfield handsomely.
The rest of the lossless mix is a front-heavy presentation, delivering clear and well-prioritized dialogue that's intelligible even in whispered conversations. Like the rears, the soundstage is active with subtle discrete effects heard convincingly off-screen, providing a very welcoming and engaging soundscape. With a terrifically-balanced channel separation that shows smooth movement between the speakers, the mid-range feels warm and extensive while an understated but satisfying low end adds some depth to the music. In the end, the track will not compete with the latest action blockbuster. But being an emotional, character-driven drama, 'The Color Purple' makes for an excellent stereo presentation on Blu-ray.
For this Blu-ray edition, Warner Bros. simply ports over the same set of bonus features as the two-disc Special Edition from 2003. It's actually somewhat disappointing that new material is not offered after 25 years, but it's not really a matter of complaint, just a bit of letdown.
Steven Spielberg's 'The Color Purple' is a poignant and powerful film about women surviving in rural Georgia at the beginning of the 20th century. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, the movie features memorably heartbreaking performances by Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, and Danny Glover. Celebrating 25 years, Warner Home Video brings the period drama to Blu-ray with very good picture quality and a terrific lossless audio presentation. Aside from the attractive DigiBook case, the bonus collection is the same set from the 2003 Special Edition. Nonetheless, the overall package is a great purchase for devoted fans and recommended for others.