If Shug was born with nobility and Celie slowly absorbs it, Winfrey’s Sofia is the life force, telling the town’s white mayor to go to hell, getting in a fight, and paying for it with a blind eye and years in jail. She emerges broken and confused, in a daze, to find herself the maid of the very mayor’s wife whose original job offer led to her trouble. There is a scene where the wife, who has been taking driving lessons from Sofia, grandly offers to drive her home to spend Christmas with her children.
This could have been a deeply emotional reunion, but Spielberg misses it by making the mayor’s wife a lousy driver, creating a slapstick scene in which the car bucks and stalls and the wife thinks she is being attacked by the black men trying to help her. She insists that Sofia drive her back home, after only 15 minutes with the children who barely remember her. It should have been Sofia’s scene, quiet and sad and joyous, not easy laughs followed by facile cruelty. That Sofia eventually recovers her pride and spirit is a triumph, and leads to a passionate angry speech, but the movie sidesteps her great scene.There is also some confusing intercutting between the rural South and Africa, where Celie’s children inexplicably grow up speaking only a local language, even though they are being raised by English-speaking missionaries and Nettie. Because Mister hid all of Nettie’s letters over the years, it is only because of Shug that Celie discovers Nettie is alive, and that so are her children. “I have children!” Celie says proudly and defiantly. “I have two children!” Her eventual reunion with them is one of the great heart-rending moments in the movies.Celie’s rebirth provides the spiritual center of “The Color Purple,” even if one detail (she opens a shop selling one-size-fits-all pants) seems unlikely. It is enough for her to find self-respect, love and joy; she need not succeed in retail.
This was Whoopi Goldberg’s first major performance, and remains her best, because she was allowed to draw from her inner truth and not required to play a sappy or comic role.There is a tendency to demand perfection even at the cost of effect. “The Color Purple” was rightly criticized for Spielberg’s postcard landscapes, his broad characterizations and the convolutions of his plot. But what he made was a movie of great mass appeal with a powerful truth at its center. When a movie character is really working, we become that character. That’s what the movies offer: Escapism into lives other than our own. I am not female, I am not black, I am not Celie, but for a time during “The Color Purple,” my mind deceives me that I am all of those things, and as I empathize with her struggle and victory I learn something about what it must have been like to be her. Celie is a great powerful movie character, played with astonishing grace and tenderness, and to feel her story is to be blessed with her humanity. Have we all felt ugly? Have we all been afraid to smile? Have we all lost precious things in our lives? Have we dared to dream? Celie endures and prevails, and so hope lives. If it touches you deeply enough, it’s not just only a movie.