The objections that greeted Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple still apply, to a large extent. Walker's book is told from the perspective of an abused, neglected black farmer's wife in the early 20th century, and Spielberg's decision to understand her plight as one of "yearning for escape" cheapens the character, making her just another E.T. (or suburban white kid). Worse, Spielberg's specific sensibilities remain rooted in the color and clamor of old Hollywood, and given a choice between entertaining the audience and rubbing its faces in dirt, he almost always goes for the polish. His movie-addled worldview prompted the broad, retro ethnic stereotypes of 1941 and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and even though the tin-eared cornpone dialect of The Color Purple comes primarily from Walker, Spielberg earns ire for the way he zeroes in on the story's light comic elements. He gives the slapstick choreography of juke-joint brawls and marital disagreements more play than the book's carnal sexuality and intense emotional cruelty. On the other hand, Spielberg's crowd-pleasing sense of rhythm and eye-catching visual style–heavy on shafts of light, purposeful shadows, and Hitchcockian forced perspectives–makes Purple engaging, and even moving. The new double-disc "Collector's Edition" DVD includes the usual assortment of Laurent Bouzereau-produced Spielberg appreciations, in which the cast and crew point out that The Color Purple was a sizable hit in its day, and remains a favorite among blacks. Credit for that is due in large part to the cast, which includes Whoopi Goldberg before she reduced herself to a smug, smutty caricature. She's astonishing as Purple's doleful, downtrodden heroine, as is Danny Glover as her casually cruel husband, and Margaret Avery as their mutual lover, a shack-shaking blues singer. Oprah Winfrey also scores in her first dramatic role, as a prideful member of Goldberg's rural Georgia community (and occasional member of the family) whose persistence through romantic failures, demeaning jobs, and social disapproval embodies the story's emphasis on the ways that people deal with rough situations and are transformed over time. Toward the end, Spielberg tramples too quickly to get to the scenes of redemption and sunny days, but he does find time to introduce the spiky themes that rest under the sweet candy of most of his work. He explores the gaps between the expectations of parents and children, and the decay of social order; more than any of Spielberg's other early features, the film also dramatizes how arrogance and self-interest blinds people to their careless treatment of others. If nothing else, Purple demonstrates that Spielberg may understand his own limitations better than his detractors think.
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