Steven Spielberg’s screen version of Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel “The Color Purple” is one of two biggest losers in Oscar’s history; the other is “The Turning Point,” helmed by Herbert Ross. Both pictures were nominated for 11 awards, but lost in each and every category.
While Ross was nominated for the Best Director Oscar, Spielberg was snubbed by the Directors Branch. He was the only director in 1985 whose film was nominated for Best Picture without getting recognition as its captain. It’s likely to assume that Spielberg’s spot was taken that year by the Japanese maestro, Akira Kurosawa, who received a nod the his historical epic “Ran.” The Best Director winner was Sydney Pollack for “Out of Africa,” a big glossy romantic epic that swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and many technical awards.
Though eventually a blockbuster, and flaunting a highly-anticipated screen debut from the then stage comedienne, Whoopi Goldberg, the film was controversial even before principal shooting began, and began even more so after it was released. Indeed, “Color Purple” stirred controversy along literary, cinematic, ideological, and racial lines.
Spielberg’s clean, glamorized version of Walker’s earthy and spiritual novel might have sent alarming signals to young black filmmakers about the fate of an original, uniquely black novel, when it is translated to the screen by a white middle class filmmaker, poet laureate of American suburbia whose natural instincts were driven toward creating mainstream populist fare.
Spielberg has flaunted his cinematic genius when directing other genres, but he displayed no particular sensitivity to the requirements of a book like “The Color Purple,” which came with the literary cachet of a Pulitzer Prize. The movie’s artistic look seemed as if it were shot on the studio lot–Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner would have been proud of his film.
The “N.Y. Times” Vincent Canby, a usually generous critic, slammed the film for its utter lack of realism, noting that in this Georgia farm, the corn remains harvest-ripe year-round and seems to pick itself. Canby contrasted “Color Purple” with Robert Benton’s Depression era, “Places in the Heart” (1984, not a great picture either), where crops are sown and reaped by hand. While both films were romantic, Spielberg’s was also sentimental, perceiving the past in the same glowing soft-focus images that had marked Hollywood studio films of the 1930s and 1940s.
In her critique, Pauline Kael of the “New Yorker” focused on the ways in which the film deviated from the book, a saga of female camaraderie and bonding among a group of generous, gifted, and lonely black women. Kael faulted Spielberg and his writer for creating screen characters that were phonier than those depicted in the book
Many critics felt that, due to lack of genuine conviction, Spielberg failed to give Walker’s folk tale a narrative drive or emotional push, resulting in an overly fractured saga, devoid of the pop-folk religiosity that served as the glue that held the episodic book together.
Then there was the controversy among black male viewers who felt uncomfortable with the blatantly banal and cruel characterization of the black men, particularly the character played by Danny Glover, as the brutish hubby.
In essence, the book was about growing up poor, female, ugly and black in the Deep South. While Spielberg said he was attempting something “more serious” than “E.T.” (1982), his previous, blockbuster fable, some suspected that his real motivation was a rather blatant bid for the Oscars, which became ironic in terms of the snub.
Others felt that what attracted Spielberg to Walker’s book was its childlike heroine, Celie, and the lyrical presentation of the healing power of love, recurrent motifs in his work, for he emphasized Celie’s triumphant pursuit of happiness and self-respect rather than her misery and loneliness, or the political insights of her sister’s African experience.
This might explain why he approached the material with undue timidity, including the sex scene between Celie and the free-spirited singer Shug (Margaret Avery), a turning point in the evolution of Celie’s character, because it conveyed her experience of sexual pleasure for the first time in her life, leading to increased self-awareness and self-worth. Spielberg must have been in a no-win situation. In the public screening that I attended, in a New York’s Upper West Side theater, there were boos and hisses during the sex scene, presumably by men.
Three years later, in 1988, The well-intentioned “Mississippi Burning,” directed by Alan Parker, aroused controversy, because it recounted a 1964 government investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights workers from a strictly white perspective, failing to acknowledge the role of blacks in this movement.
In 1990, the failure of “The Long Walk Home,” which was released by Miramax twice, was partly attributed to its weakly conceived narrative, as yet another story about the political awakening of a white woman (Sissy Spacek), this time in Alabama of 1954. As her maid, Whoopi Goldberg played such a pathetically passive role, it was almost embarrassing to watch.