Far worse films than Steven Spielberg's laudable if problematic adaptation of Alice Walker's novel have been treated much less harshly. This film, which introduced Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey to national audiences, has been unfairly attacked as an ill-considered and unseemly plea
for "serious" consideration from an extremely successful young filmmaker better known for fantasy adventure films. Though a commercial success, this was one of the few major Hollywood dramas to concern itself with the lives of black women. Where are the subsequent black female films? Similarly, it
soft-pedals the novel's lesbianism but how many subsequent Hollywood films have done better?
The story begins in 1909 as teenager Celie (Desreta Jackson) gives birth to two children (apparently fathered by her own father) and is married off to Albert (Danny Glover), who hates her and wants her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia). When Nettie resists his advances, Albert persuades the sisters'
father to separate the girls. Celie's children are sold to a local preacher and Nettie leaves. As an adult, Celie (now Whoopi Goldberg) lives a life of servitude to Albert who mistreats her shamelessly. He intercepts Nettie's letters to Celie, not allowing the sisters to communicate. Celie is cut
off from all human affection. Celie eventually does receive love and gains self-respect through the timely intervention of an outside force who enters her life in an unexpected manner.
Spielberg lacks his usual intuitive affinity for his story material; consequently the film is a bit clunky at times. There are some unfortunate slapstick comic relief sequences and a few of the characterizations are also much too broad and cartoonish. The film was strongly criticized in some
quarters for its negative depiction of black men but, if anything, it is less harsh than the novel. The film deserves praise for its heartwarming, empowering presentation of the strength and nobility of black women. It has also been damned for its gloriously lush cinematography as if the lives of
black folk were only meant to be shown in squalid environments. Black audiences enjoy Hollywood fantasy as much as anyone.
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