THE COLOR PURPLE
DVD - Image A- Sound A- Extras A-
BLU-RAY - Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Adolph Caesar, Margaret Avery
screenplay by Menno Meyjes, based on the novel by Alice Walker
directed by Steven Spielberg
**½/**** Image B Sound B Extras B+
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Vondie Curtis-Hall
written and directed by Kasi Lemmons
by Bill Chambers In the prologue to Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple, black sisters Celie (Desreta Jackson) and Nettie (Akosua Busia) play patty-cake in a field of blue-pink flowers. Celie, the ugly duckling, is pregnant with her second illegitimate child, and when she has the baby, her father (Leonard Jackson) cruelly whisks it away to a new home, as he did her firstborn. Later, her father disposes of Celie, too, betrothing her to Albert, a.k.a. "Mister" (Danny Glover), a vicious stranger on horseback seeking Nettie's hand in marriage. Concerned with more than just lonely Celie (Whoopi Goldberg as an adult) summoning the confidence to defy Albert (less through her own sexual awakening, as in The Color Purple's source material, than through a cultivated sisterhood with the women in her orbit), the picture examines a generation of emancipated African-American men who, poisoned by the slave mentality, treat their women like Cinderella in a misguided salvo to independence. Shit rolls downhill, in other words.
It's dangerous to say that Spielberg has no business directing a film about The Black Experience, because in so doing, you risk implying that The Black Experience isn't a human one. What Spielberg brought to the table, first and foremost, is a visual sweep that's astounding considering The Color Purple's TV-friendly aspect ratio of 1.85:1. While the mise-en-scène has a tendency to be almost dismayingly pretty, often evoking--as cynics were wont to point out--a Mr. Bluebird-on-my-shoulder day, there was nothing to be gained from taking an opposite approach. The movie's picturesque qualities stand against the grim lives led by its characters to suggest something true of the balance of life on Earth. (A conversation late in The Color Purple rationalizes all the aestheticized suffering when Margaret Avery's Shug posits that God would be pissed off if one were so navel-gazing as to ignore His beautiful handiwork.) At first I was going to pair this up in a review with Spielberg-idol John Ford's frothy The Quiet Man, which is nothing if not visually similar, until I realized I risked trivializing the former with such a coupling.
Not that the picture lacks for levity. In fact, the execution of some of The Color Purple's lighter moments provides the tidiest ammunition against Spielberg. You worry, in scenes like the one in which Albert ineptly prepares a meal, that Spielberg's education in black cinema stops at "Tom & Jerry" cartoons: Wanting the oven hotter, Albert retrieves a tin can marked "Kerosene" in letters big and comical, and Spielberg cuts to an empty chair that Celie has fled with split-second timing, the subsequent fireball supplying a sound effect akin to Tom or Jerry bolting from the room. The bit is funny, cute, and, complete with low, headless-mammy angles, perhaps too reverent of the rolling-pin era in pre-Poitier entertainment.
Still, The Color Purple is unquestionably a work of heart and soul dazzlingly performed by Spielberg's tightest ensemble since Jaws--although familiarity has retroactively rendered Goldberg, then a complete unknown, an awfully unconvincing shrinking violet, and a scene in which she shimmies and blurts "ha-cha-cha!" in an outfit not unlike the one Oda Mae Brown wears to the bank in Ghost is an inexplicable harbinger of the Goldberg persona that momentarily zaps you out of the picture. And if Terrence Malick would've been even better suited to adapt Alice Walker's epistolary novel, which reads at times like the quasi-poetic narration from one of his films, Spielberg's classicism comes to be appreciated in a goosebumps-inducing send-off for Mister that brings to mind John Wayne's exit from another Ford classic, The Searchers.
I wish I could muster the same enthusiasm for Kasi Lemmons's hyphenate debut, Eve's Bayou. Her follow-up effort, The Caveman's Valentine, was/is an unsung gem, but as it trades on a fascination with superhero archetypes (starring Samuel L. Jackson, it could be a movie within M. Night Shyamalan's Jackson starrer Unbreakable), it wasn't treated with the critical or popular respect of Eve's Bayou, a coming-of-age film set in the 1960s that concerns the weathered storms of an idyllic childhood.
Sharing her name with the titular bayou, a plot of land in rural Louisiana that, legend has it, was bequeathed to the black community in gratitude of slaves who nursed Jean-Louis Baptiste back to health, pre-teen mischief-maker Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) prefers her smooth-talking dad, Dr. Louis Batiste (Jackson), to the rest of her otherwise female-centric household. But one night during a soirée at the Batistes, Eve catches daddy in a compromising position with a lady not her mother; Louis talks Eve down from a subsequent panic attack (an innovative choice for the child's reaction on Lemmons's part) in a scene rich, like so many in the latter half of Eve's Bayou, with Freudian overtones. Louis addresses his daughter as though she's the wronged wife: his patronizing gestures of solace constitute an apology in doublspeak--he's sorry for being indiscreet rather than for his indiscretion.
But a movie needs more than psychosexual overtones. Eve's Bayou is cinematically amateurish and unfocused, violating its heroine's point-of-view (the adult Eve narrates the film, defining it as a reminiscence with her opening line, "The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old") with encounters and flashbacks to which she is not and could not have been privy and cutting to too many gritty black-and-white asides besides, an effect intended to underline exposition that only demonstrates Lemmons's first-feature insecurities. Additionally, the picture ends on an unearned note of haunted ambiguity: Instead of showing us, in a fashion that would give rise to polarized assessments organically, a pivotal incident involving Louis and Eve's older sister that informs the final third of Eve's Bayou, we watch it play out in a variety--three, to be precise--of emotional configurations (the Rashomon crutch). Its depiction of a pre-civil rights black neighbourhood marked by affluence notwithstanding, Eve's Bayou is hardly revolutionary.
One of the earliest titles to be released on video in the letterbox format, The Color Purple has always looked fine at home but never as lovely as it does on Warner's new Two-Disc Special Edition. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer--it's apparently the same one used for a 1997 DVD release of the film--has not only aged well, it should also continue to age well; I defy anyone to date The Color Purple on the basis of the DVD's source print alone. (If we can convince Universal to re-author 1941, there will be no such thing as a poor Spielberg DVD.) Remixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the film's soundtrack here is pleasing to the ears though inconspicuous--Spielberg saved the fireworks for his next picture, Empire of the Sun.
Laurent Bouzereau (who else?) was responsible for The Color Purple's supplements, and while they're dense with filler clips, the four featurettes on the second platter of this set do, in fairness, contain some remarkable content. In the deceptively-christened "Conversations with the Ancestors: The Color Purple From Book to Screen" (27 mins.), author Walker articulates the seeds of her book ("I had two grandparents who, when they were younger, were really horrible people"), and, among other topics, she discusses her stab at a screenplay adaptation (retitled Watch for Me in the Sunset by Walker herself, it impressed Spielberg, but she ultimately withdrew the script from consideration). It appears she's also reconciled the picture's timidity in interpreting Celie's Sapphic awakening, praising the sequence for its "happiness." Spielberg admirably goes down the list of criticisms against his interpretation of the novel--he's more self-aware than you think, and he gets the last laugh, in a mercenary sense, when he points out that The Color Purple grossed a hundred simoleons at the box office even though he committed sins X, Y, and Z.
The next two docs, "A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple" (29 mins.) and "Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple" (22 mins.), were very obviously one program divided in two to keep the SAG dogs at bay. (The Screen Actor's Guild began hitting studios with fees last year for talent appearing in DVD making-of material running longer than thirty minutes to the second.) Oprah Winfrey, whatever off-camera personality she once had clearly absorbed by the artificiality of daytime television, nonetheless contributes great, cherished production anecdotes. How she wound up with the role of Sofia is indeed the stuff of hymns.
Here (in "Cultivating a Classic" specifically), Spielberg recounts Goldberg's screen test, which doubled as a trial run of his original idea to shoot The Color Purple in black-and-white using cinematographer Gordon Willis; E.T. DP Allen Daviau soon became available and devised ingenious lighting schemes for photographing (in colour) a multiplicity of African-American skin tones within a master without reducing any of the faces to "eyes and teeth." The lone dud featurette is "The Color Purple: The Musical" (7 mins.), another misnomer of sorts. Producer Quincy Jones and co. reflect on the period songs written for the film--The Color Purple ain't comin' to Broadway anytime soon, in other words. (Editor's Note, 01/17/11: Whoops.) Animated galleries of behind-the-scenes stills and cast photos round out Disc Two and the distinguished package itself.
This review refers to the 119-minute director's cut of Eve's Bayou found on a Signature Series DVD from Lions Gate. (The theatrical version is 110 minutes in length.) The character of "Uncle Tommy" (the closing titles were not updated to credit the man who plays him), a cerebral palsy sufferer residing in Eve's manse, is the most noteworthy restoration to the film; for a complete guide to alterations, either of Lemmons's thorough commentaries is currently the best reference.
Actors Jackson, Smollett, Good, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, and Vondie Curtis-Hall join Lemmons for one yak-track, producer Cotty Chub, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, and director of photography Amy Vincent for another. Although participants in both yakkers tend to collapse into fits of group giggles, everything from the film's mirror imagery to performance motivations receives mention. Lemmons's short Dr. Hugo (see sidebar), a trailer for Eve's Bayou, and an Easter Egg link to a commercial for Monster's Ball complete the disc. The audio-visual presentation of Eve's Bayou itself is disappointingly average: The 16x9-enhanced 1.85:1 image improves upon that of Trimark's non-anamorphic DVD, issued in the late-'90s, but it isn't on a par with many of Lions Gate's recent, stellar transfers. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio rumbles the room intermittently. Originally published: February 16, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - THE COLOR PURPLE
Warner brings The Color Purple to Blu-ray in a straight port of their 2003 Two-Disc SE, though the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is allegedly--and obviously--"sparkling new." Sharpness and contrast remain understated, but subtle details rise to the surface, such as the fine spray that kicks up from a rope being dunked in the water as Harpo and Laurence Fishburne's Swain pull a piano across a creek. Textures are thrown into greater relief as well, from the translucent linens hanging on clotheslines to the velveteen hat Celie wears to the "jook joint." It's not particularly HD-like but it is incredibly filmlike, with a very light wash of grain dancing over the image. The purples? Deeper and, I reckon, more accurate. Reds, yellows, and greens have similarly renewed pop, and their saturation only intensifies as Celie's self-confidence grows--a gimmick that was lost to the homogenizing effects of NTSC. Upgraded to DTS-HD MA, the 5.1 mix barely utilizes the surrounds or the LFE channel but sounds more discrete in terms of left-right separation than I remembered. Warmer, too. All of the previous supplementary material returns in SD; want an eyeful of how good this presentation looks? Compare it to the included trailers. The DigiBook packaging features a 40-page insert consisting of production stills and generic liner notes. Originally published: January 16, 2011.