One year after the publication of The Color Purple in 1982, feminist author Alice Walker became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her unequivocally ambitious work of historical fiction that chronicled the staggering setbacks and small victories in the life of an uneducated, mistreated southern black woman over the first half of the twentieth century.
And although it's still considered one of the most controversial contemporary classics ever written as year after year, Purple lands in the top half of the American Library Association's annual list of most challenged books, after revisiting the epic once again outside the text in this Oscar nominated restored Blu-ray, the impact that Purple has made on our cultural, cinematic and literary landscape is undeniable.
From a storytelling standpoint, you can't help but acknowledge the way that certain themes or techniques have – perhaps even unconsciously – influenced other Southern set opuses of outsiders left to fend for themselves in both the novel and subsequent film adaptations of Forrest Gump and Fried Green Tomatoes while evaluating the changes made from page to screen in the depiction of issues such as violence, sexuality, and prejudice.
Of course, subtlety in such matters is not Purple's strong suit. Granted, for at least the first half of the sprawling film, screenwriter Menno Meyjes' adaptation is a fittingly ambitious one that deftly balances the overall scope of the book with the sensitive treatment of the (female) characters. Yet it's also guilty of relying on melodramatic manipulation that at times borders on stereotypical exploitation as more characters are introduced.
And considering the fact that nearly every single man onscreen initially seems to represent a one-note epitome of evil (or at the very worst, racist caricature), it's therefore also easy to understand why Purple divided Hollywood's largely male (and likewise some female) audience from the start.
Needless to say, loading the movie with a cardboard cast of male characters is perhaps the greatest reason that despite receiving eleven Oscar nominations in a historical tie with female-centric '70s film The Turning Point, Purple went home empty-handed in a year wherein Sydney Pollack's masterful Out of Africa dominated.
Likewise, Meyjes falters in his decision to spoon-feed us the morals of the story while translating Walker's symbolism heavy novel to the screen rather than respecting our intelligence enough so that we can arrive at the same conclusions naturally. And while frequently this approach causes some key dramatic scenes to hit a false note, Purple routinely gets back into the right rhythm thanks to the people in each frame who turn the script's atonal sharps and flats into bittersweet blues.
Thus, for those who find themselves entranced by the Southern web woven by the production team, Purple's tendency to preach is easily forgiven, since it's impossible to ignore that Steven Spielberg's alternately heartbreaking yet simultaneously uplifting movie always has the best of intentions in conveying the essence of Walker's tome from start to finish.
Beautifully captured in a Blu-ray book, despite the quantity versus quality approach of Purple's poorly written, photo-still heavy booklet that mostly serves as filler rather than offering any insight into the work on the level of a Criterion Collection essay, the exquisitely transferred film to high definition disc gives you a viewing experience that truly rivals the movie theater.
This being said, it's hard to focus on technical specs when you're that taken in by the tale. In a phenomenal Oscar worthy breakthrough performance, Whoopi Goldberg immediately sets the bar for the talented ensemble that follows including Danny Glover in an against-type role as the abusive, unfaithful husband of Goldberg's Celie as well as a courageous turn by Oprah Winfrey that – similar to Goldberg's work – continually reveals more layers, complexity and depth as the film continues.
Having impressed Walker with his emotional side in the unexpectedly moving “personal” coming-of-age tale of a child going through divorce in E.T., Purple paved the way for Spielberg's Oscar winning work that would follow as the former king of the summer box office blockbuster embraced and attempted to revitalize the great tradition of old-fashioned epic storytelling for himself.
And naturally, Spielberg proved he was equally skilled in helming grand tales of war and peace as he was in bringing us to fantastical locales filled with action packed mystery. Thus, his career flourished all the more once Spielberg began moving back and forth from crowd-pleasers like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones to more serious, historical fare such as Schindler's List, Amistad and The Empire of the Sun, which was his follow-up to The Color Purple.
And despite its flaws, cinematically speaking Purple was more than just an important game-changer in the director's career. For in addition to being that rare studio made movie featuring a nearly all-black cast, without the favored device of viewing another culture through the eyes of a white person a la Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai, it was also a challenge to other successful blockbuster and/or franchise directors as well.
Namely, just like Jaws had inspired healthy competition to tell a new kind of universally entertaining story, Spielberg perhaps unintentionally threw down the gauntlet once again, urging others to pick it up occasionally and put down the popcorn.
Even though it didn't garner Oscar gold, Spielbeg's determination to continue on the path of alternating between an escapist flick and a historical movie encouraged those who'd achieved similar success to likewise take a risk on stories that matter.
Basically, it's a sad but true fact in the studio system that tales like Purple wouldn't be told first and foremost without the filmmakers' level of “clout,” connections to get the right cast, nor with the same dedication to the craft as someone so well-versed in the language of cinema.
Yet the most important thing in getting these movies out there through the system is guaranteeing an audience with the built in fan bases of those involved. When filmmakers take a risk, viewers will do the same by spending a few hours exploring another culture or world they never would've experienced without a studio, cast, director, screenwriter and author bold enough to utilize that specific shade of Purple in the first place.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.