The Color Purple
by Alice Walker
Washington Square Press, 253 pp., $6.95 (paper)
The Color Purple
a film by Steven Spielberg
by Ishmael Reed
St. Martin’s, 148 pp., $12.95
Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple might as well have been about a bunch of dancing eggplants for all it has to say about black history. In its disregard of black life outside its cartoon images, the film is a throwback to Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures or Disney’s Song of the South, to the days when the NAACP had to constantly petition for fair treatment, and when the casting of a black woman as an uppity maid was heralded as progress. But no studio mogul could have set the darkies singing and bopping more merrily down that perpetually dusty back road than America’s present so-called master of enchantment.
Given Spielberg’s previous films, the ruthless naiveté of his adaptation of Alice Walker’s pious best seller should not have come as a surprise. Nevertheless the film was denounced as, among other things, a hate letter to black men. The film’s portrayal of black men as well as its glittering surface led many to compare it to The Birth of a Nation, although Spielberg’s effort is neither as technically innovative nor as ideologically primitive. Consequently, there was a second-time-as-farce aspect to the news that The Color Purple was picketed at its première, just as Griffith’s film was when it opened in 1915. Now that the furor—”one of the silliest controversies ever made up,” Bill Cosby said—has been succeeded by other controversies, the receipts entered in the record books, and the Oscars not won, questions remain like an aftertaste.
The novel and the film of The Color Purple are both works of the imagination that make claim to historical truth. The novel is set between the wars, while the film opens with the date 1909, as if someone had decided that the story of a black woman’s hard life in the backwater was more plausible in a less immediate social past. Or maybe the film begins further back in time in order to account for Whoopi Goldberg’s advanced age when she appears as the heroine, Celie, grown up. In any event, 1906 leaps out from the screen like a correction to the novel, which, with its flat characters, sudden revelations, and moral tags, has a doggedly nineteenth-century quality.
Unfortunately, Spielberg and his screen writer were neither sufficiently free of Walker’s text nor faithful enough to it. Throughout the film one has the sense that the property was treated as a libretto, and one can almost hear the pages turn in anticipation of the aria, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Spielberg’s strategy was to broaden Walker’s cunning simplifications, and in blowing up her plot, Spielberg not only makes its flaws more visible, e also uncovers, beneath the feminist rhetoric, the melodrama at its heart.
The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. Celie, age fourteen, writes letters to “God.” She has no one …