BOOKS AND THE CULTURE FROM ITS relentless tearful closeups to its endlessly swelling strings to its mid-December release date, The Color Purple has Oscar written all over it. Even the running time of 2’/-plus hours lets us know that we have been ushered into the presence of a Significant Film only the unbeliever need squirm on his degenerate, unmoved bottom. By then the damp reconciliations and reunions, at full amplification and twenty feet high, are calculated to have him drowning in his own tears. Forgive me if I borrow a phrase, slightly altered, from Oscar Wilde: “Anyone who fails to laugh at the close of The Color Purple and most of the way through it must have a heart of stone.” Stephen Spielberg’s first attempt at a “serious” film is also the first adaptation of an Alice Walker novel, and they do seem made for each other, for sentimental melodrama is their stock in trade. Spielberg, in films like Close Encounters and E.T., normally goes for more upbeat and optimistic material than Walker, who generally is concerned with bleak, didactic visions of rural black poverty. But she shares his conviction in happy endings, justifying them on progressive principle so her novels tend to be long sequences of dreary oppression suddenly transformed into spiritual triumph. The film is at some pains to find a common tradition for its lachrymose sensibility, making several heavy-handed gestures at Dickens, particularly Oliver Twist. But compared to Alice Walker, Dickens was a lighthearted raconteur of neo-realistic tales. She never uses an emotional stiletto when a bludgeon will do, and Spielberg’s film adopts and magnifies all her flaws. The result is indeed, as they say back home, a sorry spectacle. THE COLOR PURPLE is the fictional, epistolary autobiography of one Celie, a poor black Michael King reviews contemporary culture from his vantage point in Houston. woman in rural Georgia at the beginning of the century. As book and film open, she has been often raped by her father, and he has taken away the resultant two children at birth, their fates unknown. When her father’s eyes wander to Celie’s younger and prettier sister, he then gives Celie to a brute of a husband relish and allows her to be beaten by THE COLOR PURPLE Directed by Stephen Spielberg From the novel by Alice Walker HAIL, MARY Directed by Jean-Luc Godard his own incorrigible children. When her beloved younger sister arrives, in flight from her father, the husband attempts to rape her as well and the two girls are parted, seemingly forever. Celie’s solitary triumph, and the girls’ eventual reunion, is thus the subject of the remainder of the story. Celie’s degradation goes on, but as is required of melodrama, suddenly and magically, all things take a turn for the better. Without recounting the preposterous and utterly unaccounted-for reversals certainly no less extraordinary than Spielberg’s usual special effects all is set right, virtue triumphs, and even unregenerate evil is brought, by saintly example, to mend its ways. This is also the pattern of Walker’s other two novels and several of her rather better short stories, and their enormous popularity despite their bleak content \(and the now generally weak consequence of their broad-brush emotionalism and their selfconsciously “uplifting” themes. Walker sees herself as the spokeswoman of the most downtrodden members of our society, the “black black” even, to use her own term, “ugly” black woman. And should the meek finally inherit the earth, Miss Celie will definitely be first in line. \(Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the adult Celie, has been utterly stripped of all the insouciance and natural energy of her stage persona to embody Walker’s grim conception. Under the circumSPIELBERG generally follows Walker’s novella closely \(she is although he adds a few flourishes of male brutality and a musical finale inadvertently reminiscent of the Marx Brothers’ pickanniny close to A Day at the Races. Neither author nor filmmaker seem in the least bit conscious that their work caricatures black people and black culture, or that their characters, on the whole, are little more than glaring and conventional stereotypes. The worst stereotypes are, of course, the villains of the piece in Walker’s case, of nearly all her pieces black men. The black men of The Color Purple, and of Walker’s created world, are shiftless, irresponsible brutes, oversexed and under-ambitious, tyrannical to their families but weak in the face of real danger or racial oppression. When they are not being incorrigible bullies, they are comically inept buffoons, who cannot even dress themselves without help from long-enduring and saintly mothers and spouses. In short, in Walker’s novels, black men are everything white folks say they are, and the worst curse of racism is that black women are permanently saddled only coyly suggests the solution baldly adopted by Walker in the novel Celie discovers sexual ecstasy with her husband’s generous, blues-singing, liberated girlfriend and eliminates the putative need for black middlemen altogether. Walker’s progressive recommendation for black men themselves is that they keep their mouths shut and take up sewing thus the evil husband is brought to his miraculous redemption. Spielberg is content to give poor Danny Glover a few weak smiles, stage far right, but we clearly understand that he, too, has gotten the message. There is one scene here in which a lamebrain and condescendingly racist white woman accuses a group of black men of attacking her, and we are supposed to be filled with righteous outrage at her malicious stupidity. But having watched Walker and Spielberg depict black men for nearly two hours as barely above the bestial, one is tempted to ask, “why isn’t she right?” If white people accuse black men Liberal Piety & Papal Pique By Michael King 20 JANUARY 10, 1986
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