25 February 2008

The Color Purple by Spielberg, 1985

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 8:00 am

It’s easy for me to see white racist stereotyping in this movie, even if the book was written by a black woman. Is it a distortion imposed by Spielberg on the source material, or Alice Hoffman’s unrecognized “integration” into dominant cultural biases? Or is it my patronizing white eye distorting what the writer was trying to show me, feeling smug that even if she couldn’t see her own subjection, I could?

So, here’s the scary Daddy, cold and dark, keeping an eye his daughters — guess who’s the father of the pregnant girl?

Purple birth

And here’s a nice father-and-son scene. The old Daddy, a gleam on his shoes, gazes down on his shiftless drunken son, just another piece of trash littering the kitchen floor, just another farm animal. The place has gone to hell since the little woman left him, and so has he.

Purple trash

Here’s the jazz diva coming home to Jesus and Big Daddy the preacher, the whole juke joint parading in behind her. He’s a clean and stern and straight Daddy, but his heart melts when his girl comes up the aisle to meet him.

Purple church



  1. Joining in on Black History month 25 days late, eh, Ktis?


    Comment by seyfried — 25 February 2008 @ 5:03 pm

  2. In the afterglow of the Oscars, it must be observed that The Color Purple was nominated for 11 awards and won none. I don’t think it was lauded just because it addressed racially sensitive issues with heart and compassion, with the full Hollywood treatment. The uniformly negative portrayal of black men is consistent with the book, which I read long ago but don’t remember distinctly. But in performances we mostly get stoicism from the women and crude impassivity from the men — i.e., everyone seems sort of flat on the negative affect end of the register. We get much more sparkle in the spunky sisterhood moments with Whoopi, Oprah, and whoever it is that played the singer Shug Avery. Even this kitchen-as-pigsty scene in the screen grab sort of pretty. I wonder if Spielberg realized the story made the men look really bad and he tried, out of white sensibilities, not to push their evil into too dark of territory. The movie incorporates the Christian salvific message of the book but fails to take it seriously as a tranformative agent for the main character, which might have been more interesting than the fairly ordinary women’s liberation theme of the movie. You get the rousing gospel number from the screengrab, but it looks like the big moment in a musical rather than a spiritual enlightenment. I can see how, if you kept moving in Spielberg’s direction, Purple would turn into a musical — which is what has happened to it.

    Maybe the problem is that the producer and director were unwilling to take the movie in a direction that would subject it to stronger claims of racism. The evil of men and the salvific power of Christianity to overcome this sort of natural barbarous cruelty are definitely strong in the book, but they’re both themes of paternalistic white culture. Spielberg is a white man after all: what’s the politically sound move here? Celebrate black sisterhood, that’s what. Spielberg is perhaps intrinsically celebratory anyhow, so it’s the move he would naturally turn to. He might have put himself in an awkward spot by choosing this project, and the result contributes to the rap on Spielberg as shying away from the hard and the deep.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  3. But that’s really it, you know? Unless you can find more to salvage from it.

    “You get the rousing gospel number from the screengrab, but it looks like the big moment in a musical rather than a spiritual enlightenment.”

    Which, perhaps, is more to the card of thematic exhaustion in the motion industry with anything. Moments of hope, music as sinthome, all of them engraved in a musical subconscious because, simply, that’s what they were submerged within in the first place. In light of Dreamgirls and its subsequent Academy Award “snub”, you saw some people getting tired of people taking the easy way out (or in).

    Unfortunately, they don’t pick up on 50% of the other films.


    Comment by seyfried — 25 February 2008 @ 6:24 pm

  4. Don’t get me wrong, I like gospel choir music as much as the next fella, but it is a coded bit of kitsch when the movie people put that big inspirational number near the end of the picture, letting everybody know they’ll be able to walk out of the theater on a cheerful note. And this particular resolution of an intractable father-daughter alienation seemed so easy, so implausible, so Broadway. I was nodding along with the music enjoying the scene, its choreography so lovely, and I was happy for these people to join together even if it couldn’t possibly have happened that way. Oh well, I’m vulnerable to these blatant manipulations of emotion. But the movie is the worse for it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 9:33 pm

  5. Poor you. http://youtube.com/watch?v=DsqCl2vO9xA


    Comment by seyfried — 25 February 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  6. So what’s your message, Seyfried — that the movies won’t get better until sentimental old kitschaholics like me take the cure and swear off the stuff? Or that this angsty music video moment is the kitsch of the new generation?


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 10:05 pm

  7. Kitschmatics?

    “that the movies won’t get better until sentimental old kitschaholics like me take the cure and swear off the stuff?”

    No hardly that. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. Unless you’re somebody not willing to admit what’s going on in the first place.

    “Or that this angsty music video moment is the kitsch of the new generation?”

    Like Juno (which I rather liked)? A bit. I think there are many opportunities as, literally, “music as sinthome”, but likewise there’s a degree of acknowledgment, meta-film, that needs to be sutured or adjusted in order for us to really forgive such a manipulation. That’s why musicals get away with it! ;)

    On that note, I’m glad 2007 film season is over; 2008 looks incredible.


    Comment by seyfried — 25 February 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  8. I was just looking at the other Oscar nominees for the year of The Color Purple. Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, Witness, and the winner, Out of Africa. I liked Witness and Spider Woman, whereas Out of Africa I don’t remember at all. The Color Purple I probably wouldn’t have ever watched again if it hadn’t showed up in the Netflix envelope, and it proved a fairly satisfactory family viewing event.

    Juno I didn’t see, but it’s in our Netflix queue. Speaking of musicals, I did like the musical “Once” from this year. It was very romantic, very sentimental and emo, but sort of clever in its use of music and also earnest. Realistic? Sort of, since the lead character really lived the Dublin street musician life and he really did fall in love with the Czech pianist.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 10:32 pm

  9. Oh, now I get your point, Seyfried, about music as sinthome, with each of these people in the video experiencing their separate isolated moments that still link them together in a way that can be traced by the song. And gospel music is like that too for both the redeemed and the sinners in the black American culture of that time. Took me awhile, which it shouldn’t have, since I’ve been thinking about the sinthomes and the rhizomes lately anyhow, and the difficulty of actually feeling or hearing the strings vibrating that link me to other people.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2008 @ 10:50 pm

  10. “And gospel music is like that too for both the redeemed and the sinners in the black American culture of that time.”

    And David Lynch even more. “Candy Colored Clown” is probably the best example here.


    Comment by seyfried — 25 February 2008 @ 11:48 pm

  11. Jonquille, I am now going to write to Michael Musto telling him just what a vicious, unforgiving and prissy bitch you really are, and if you think I am afraid of challenging him on a duel about Hilton you’re dead WRONG.


    Comment by parody center — 26 February 2008 @ 4:15 am

  12. It’s the eternal return of David Lynch. “Lynchian” has become not only a cinematic style but a shorthand term for the multifold and inchoate expression of unconscious threads that link inside and outside. Lynch always credits himself with “sound design” in his movies — not just the organized and coherent songs, but also the rumblings and scraping noises and foghorns that connote unconsciousness through the audible register.

    Spielberg is more prone to amplify the already-formulated experiences of the audience and project it back to them. It too resonates with people — that’s why his movies are so popular. The big gospel choir attunes on visual and auditory registers with the sentimental desire for happy reconciliation that connects us all. Sure it rings false sometimes, or it doesn’t last, but the desire is there even after we consciously talk ourselves out of it, try to get smart, won’t let ourselves get fooled again. We are building cognitive-emotional resistances to a manipulation that is attuned to some part of ourselves that still wants to be heard and to express itself.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 February 2008 @ 5:24 am

  13. if you think I am afraid of challenging him on a duel about Hilton you’re dead WRONG.

    I knew you would rather do that than save Kosovo.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 26 February 2008 @ 10:44 am

  14. I would say since Spielberg is intrinsically incapable of handling the sort of Brechtian Vervreemdungseffekt you would encounter in a Douglas Sirk (being aped here in the context of Color Purple’s melodrama), his melodramatic moments end up looking like an upmarket cartoon. The scene I remember the most from COLOR PURPLE is when Whoopi meets her son in the end, and he almost literally QUACKS like the ugly duckling (a muffled ”momma” that sent the Serbian audiences into roars of laughter). That said Spielberg is a brilliant propagandist – else there would be no Spielberg empire – on the order of a Leni Riefenstahl, so those jazzy numbers are done very well and Quincy Jones’s score is good. I also thought Winfrey’s performance was excellent, and Whoopi was later killed by the Halliwud industry, cast in cartoony roles which do not take advantage of her dramatic talent.


    Comment by parodycenter — 27 February 2008 @ 6:24 am

  15. I don’t think I’ve seen any movies by Douglas Sirk. While there’s no knowing for sure, I suspect Spielberg thought he was making a serious cultural statement rather than a melodrama. For example, there’s no hint of irony in the big gospel production number, nor do we get the churchgoers dancing on the pews. Probably this sort of cheap and sentimental conflict resolution lacking either irony or obvious overstatement positions this movie in the realm of kitsch. “The absolute denial of shit” is Kundera’s definition of kitsch, and that’s where Spielberg winds up in this movie. If this was Almodovar the whole thing would have been way more flamboyant, oscillating more wildly between extremes rather than trying for nuance and failing.

    “Spielberg is a brilliant propagandist.”

    In The Color Purple it’s propaganda for global communitarianism. American blacks need to return to their African roots to restore their own dignity, but they also serve as missionaries, bringing Christianity and schools (no overt reference to capitalism) to Africa. There’s a separate-but-equal ideology at work here. At one point Whoopi tells Oprah’s husband that, since he didn’t respect his wife, she wound up provoking a white woman and consequently getting beaten severely and imprisoned for years — as if it’s his fault that the whites unjustly crushed her body and soul. Respect one another in our poor minority community and we won’t run afoul of — or challenge — the dominant white culture. Again, this stuff might have been in the book, so Spielberg puts himself in a dilemma regardless of how he plays the source material. He found himself in a similar position on Schindler’s List. In his book Schindler probably made himself look pretty heroic, which exposes him and Spielberg to criticism since he was still an opportunist with not a lot to lose and plenty to gain economically, as well as being a rare semi-bright spot among the whole population of Nazis and collaborators that ought to be foregrounded. I liked Schindler a lot when I saw it — I’d have to see it again to re-evaluate.

    I think Spielberg is an unabashed humanist. Minority Report and AI both convey the message of the irreducible integrity of the individual heart and will in the face of overdetermining structural forces. Propaganda? Maybe so, but I liked those two movies a lot. That scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise walks with the precog woman through the shopping mall brought a tear to my eye the first time I saw it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2008 @ 8:25 am

  16. Spielberg making All that Heaven Allows – now that’s a scary thought.


    Comment by seyfried — 27 February 2008 @ 10:25 am

  17. Spielberg making All that Heaven Allows – now that’s a scary thought.

    Ha ha exactly Seyfried! But you can take this opportunity to witness my dad’s humane and humanist, Marxist-liberal bottom heart beating behind that seemingly corporate exterior, weeping in the scenes of E.T.’s departure… ”I’ll be right here…”, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye as the Blue Fairy tells David that he has but one day to see his mother… and all those other ABANDONMENT SHOTS that inform Spielberg’s films just as much as they do Disney’s.

    Clysmatics Spielberg is a propagandist, his manner of film-making with those zooms and close-ups is highly manipulative, he knows how to tackle mass emotions, and he’s behind a huge multimedia enterprise that pretty much runs the world as we know it. Worthy of respect but disgusting nonetheless. ]

    Spielberg’s best film so far has been INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, an unabashed piece of white supremacist gloss directed in such breathtaking and comic fashion that it’s still a thrill ride and a guilty pleasure.

    Artificial Intelligence was his attempt to grasp Jacques Lacan, and in some Kubrickian moments I think the film is fairly successful – I also liked the ambiguous ending which seems to suggest that the boy is forever trapped in a pre-Oedipal fantasy, frozen into eternity – but then in others, such as when the ugly duckling follows the mama duck quacking ”Mama Mama”, or the duckling experiencing castration anxiety, I found it terrible. Spielberg’s utter failure to get in touch with psychoanalysis may be witnessed in the scene where David’s mother is reading FREUD AND WOMEN on the toilet (embarrassed chuckles in the audience).

    As for Color Purple, what you don’t get in this character-driven melodrama is the emptying of character which Sirk accomplishes by his Verfremdung-through-exaggeration (his melodramas are all over the top and campy by today’s standards) however the brilliance is that grave seriousness shines through the gloss and the camp – the best example being THE IMITATION OF LIFE, Sirk’s unparalleled masterpiece on issues of race.

    I informed Michael Musto about Jonquille’s terrible behavior this week, and am hoping for a quick response.


    Comment by parodycenter — 27 February 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  18. Well I’ve got Munich checked out from the library, which will give me an opportunity to apply the many lessons I’ve learned in this discussion to yet another Spielberg product.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  19. Munich’s ideologically flawed as well, I say. Perhaps not so much in the Zizekian critique of Schindler’s List (psychological stereotypes) but in its politically manipulative agenda; I might give it a re-visit, as well, just to see if what I think is wrong with it still holds up.


    Comment by seyfried — 27 February 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  20. Thinking back on Schindler’s List, I wonder if you could make a case for it being a kind of business proposal for how to dominate a despised “race” in a way that maximizes return on investment. The death camps were a big waste of a vast cheap labor force. Instead, why not enslave them and keep them contributing to the war effort, rather than just running them into the ground and gassing them? It’s a win-win situation for oppressor and oppressed alike.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  21. Curiously enough, Sitemeter tells me that the last two visitors to Ktismatics were from Germany and Israel.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  22. Spielberg is manipulative: he can induce emotional reactions in viewers. There would seem to be a variety of ways to achieve this sort of result: story, acting, camera technique, etc. But let’s say the credit/blame goes to Spielberg. Would it be legitimate to say that he’s an excellent technician who’s limited in what he has to say and the range of emotions he wants to induce?


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 February 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  23. So I started watching Munich last night but fell asleep about 40 minutes into it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 February 2008 @ 6:31 am

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