Steven Spielberg was the wrong director for The Color Purple. Not because he was a man trying to adapt Alice Walker’s 1982 tale of downtrodden Southern women, and not because he was a white guy dealing with the black experience. No, he was wrong because he hadn’t yet learned to tame his taste for slapstick melodrama.
There are undeniable moments of power in ”Purple” – which follows Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) as she transforms from a physically and emotionally abused young wife (at the hands of Danny Glover) to an independent woman with the devils of her past at bay. But the Spielberg of 1985 interrupted them with ill-timed pratfalls and hokey sentimentalism. He didn’t yet know that the key to conveying true, real-world horror on screen is to strip it of all artifice and let it speak for itself. (That skill wouldn’t develop until ”Schindler’s List.”)
Spielberg did, however, know how to cast a starring role (a process detailed in one of the two-disc set’s four well-done featurettes): Goldberg’s stoic turn will go down as one of cinema’s great breakouts, if for nothing else than the scene in which tarnished songbird Shug Avery makes Celie smile a smile charged with enough wattage to power a small town.