Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Woman's Worth

When it came time to create a film based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg seemed like an unlikely choice. After all what did a white, Jewish, man that grew up in Arizona and California know about the black experience, especially from the point of view of women in the deep South? And at the time, long before his prestige pics of Schindler's List, Munich, and Lincoln would establish his place as a serious director, his filmography consisted of summer blockbusters like Jaws, E.T. , and Raiders of the Lost Ark. All great films, sure, but hardly the type of thing that showed he would be capable of bringing to life a complex story that involved rape, abuse, incest, and homosexuality. But when the film was released in 1985, not only was it the beginnings of another aspect of Spielberg's career, it was also a huge success, financially and critically. It went on to receive 11 Academy Awards that year (but is tied with The Turning Point as the most nominated film without a single win). And Miss Celie and her Blues happen to be the subject of this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

When I read the book years later (which is structured through only a series of letters), it was interesting to see how the tone of the movie differed and how much was glossed over, especially in regards to Celie and Shug's relationship. What is clearly defined as a lesbian relationship is reduced to a single kiss in the film that seems more sisterly and chaste. Spielberg also has a tendency to be emotionally manipulative – trying to wring tears without earning them (but damned if he doesn't succeed in getting those tears to flow. Celie's reunion with her her long-lost sister, Nettie, at the end of film reduces me to a blubbering fool every. damn. time). And he just can't resist little touches that seem childish or cutesy. (Which is something he still hasn't outgrown. The groundhogs in the last Indiana Jones film, anyone?!) The scene where Albert prepares breakfast for Shug seems to have taken its inspiration from a Looney Tunes cartoon.

But despite all these factors, the film's likability is not diminished in the slightest. It's still wildly watchable and engaging. In fact, The Color Purple along with Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes form a late 80's/early 90's, Southern set, film Trinity that shaped the development of every gay boy that was going through adolescence at that time. As gay men, we tend to gravitate towards stories with strong female characters and Actressexuality starts at an early stage. The film is at its best when it highlights the feminine relationships (although, Spielberg has never again made a film with such a strong female sensibility) and celebrates the power they possess. As highlighted by my choice for best shot.

For years, Celie has been repressed by her marriage to Albert (Danny Glover), who abuses her physically and mentally. After discovering that he has been hiding the letters her sister (whom he forced away after she spurned his advances) has sent over the past decades, Celie reaches her breaking point and decides enough is enough. She is leaving Albert and has finally gained the strength to stand up for herself. She curses him as she leaves, "Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail!" He follows her outside and raises his hand to strike when Celie stops him dead in his tracks:

"Everything you done to me, already done to you."

Without violence (although she came dangerously close with a razor and knife already), with the simple force of her will (and a pretty awesome hand gesture that brings to mind a sorcerer), Celie shifts the power into her favor. She finds the courage to be the woman she was meant to be: "I'm poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God - I'm here! I'm here."

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