Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Color Purple

"I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here. I'm here."
It’s 1909 and a young girl who has had to endure terrible sexual abuse from her father, baring him two children in the process, is given to another man as a wife. Despite being freed from her father’s clutches this is extremely painful for her as it means she is separated from her sister to whom she is very close. Her new life is no better than her last as she soon discovers that she is to be treated like a servant by her new husband, a man much older than her and who shows her no love, affection or kindness. Tasked with raising his children (one of which is barely younger than her), maintaining the house and satisfying him sexually, the film follows her life over the course of the next thirty or so years as she and other black female characters have to endure some of the worst of the racism, sexism and poverty that people had to face during those times.

The film can be extremely sad and depressing at times. It is one thing after another for Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). Beginning with her father’s abuse, he then gives her two children away. She is practically sold to a much older man and becomes his live in servant. She is denied access to her sister who she states was the only person to ever love her. A secondary character, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) has it no better. After entering the film as a strong and intelligent woman who refuses to take the abuse that both she and Celie have been submitted to, by the mid point she is a broken woman who, after striking the Mayor’s wife after a torrent of racial abuse finds herself beaten and imprisoned. This film really highlights the horrendous difficulties that black women had to live through in the South of the USA during the early part of the last century.

Because of the constant sadness, the film occasionally shifts into a more comedic tone. I found this sometimes misjudged but always a welcome rest from the violence and degradation. The character of Harpo (Willard Pugh), Celie’s son in law provided much of the comic relief in a man who is totally different to his overbearing, wife beating father, Mister (Danny Glover).

The acting throughout is superb. First off the two young girls who play sisters Celie and Nettie in the films opening act were brilliant. When Whoopi Goldberg took over the role of Celie I was blown away. I haven’t seen much of her work and always took her for a bit of a clown like actor but here she is simply incredible, delivering great depth and sadness. Oprah Winfrey, a woman I have heard of but never seen on television or on film was equally amazing. She bought a spark to the film as the sassy Sofia but was able to morph into a completely different character when he arc took a sudden turn. I’m surprised she wasn’t in more films after this performance. Danny Glover is as you’d expect very good. He is deeply unlikeable and cruel but is able to make you laugh at times. He balanced this wonderfully. The rest of the cast were all great, I didn’t spot a bad performance.

As well as focusing on the hardships its central characters face, the film also creates a much wider world. There are side characters whose lives and back stories seem full and there are a few characters that could have had their own films. The film goes out of its way to create a wide world rather than just concentrating on the small rural backwater in which the film is predominantly set. Spielberg’s direction and cinematography is excellent. I especially liked the way that he used shadow to give us a glimpse into times when characters were at the happiest.

The film is not without its faults. I thought that the middle third dragged on a little too long and that the film was a bit long on the whole. Despite this, the final third felt rushed and some important points were left unexplained. How Celie turns up in a fur coat at one point after years in rags wasn’t fully explained but my girlfriend, who has just finished reading the book, filled me in. I could see the ending from a mile off but this didn’t bother me too much because after those years of pain I really needed the redemption at the end. The film also appeared to stereotype black men quite regularly. Overall this is a film that is extremely depressing at times but has a great final pay off. Its acting is superb and despite being a white, middle class Englishman it really affected me. In a Hollywood dominated by white men, it is both unusual and welcome to see a story like this told in such a compelling way.


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