Steven Spielberg should have seen it coming. First he makes a series of popular entertainments, from E.T. to Indiana Jones, only to be denied an Oscar for being more profitable than profound. Then he decides to get serious. You can't get more serious than taking on the film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple, a novel made up of letters to God and family from the barely literate wife of a poor black sharecropper in Georgia. Just before Purple opened last December, Spielberg said, "It's as if I've been swimming in water up to my waist all my life—and I'm great at it—but now I'm going into the deep section of the pool."

And now the man who made Jaws is besieged by the monsters of the deep. Despite its 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and more than $50 million in box-office receipts, Purple has become the subject of heated debate among audiences and Academy members—for its depiction of blacks, for the blatant play by one of its stars for an Oscar and for the Academy's latest insult to Spielberg. What follows is a battle report.

Danny Glover, a quiet-spoken, highly regarded actor from San Francisco, plays a role at the heart of the nastiest issue: the allegation that Spielberg has retailed a portrait of the black man as a sadistic, sexually abusive ogre—and in general given new life to virulent stereotypes. Glover plays Mister, the widower who takes in and mistreats Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), the central character of the book and the film. For 30 years Mister torments the pathetic Celie, who had already been raped repeatedly by her stepfather. Having separated Celie from her sister, Mister exploits her relentlessly—for household chores, as nursemaid to his children and, when his boozy lover Shug Avery isn't available, for savage sex. At the L.A. opening of the film, pickets carried signs that read, "Are white producers trying to destroy black men?" Since then Glover's character has been Purple's lightning rod. Says Felicia Kessel of the NAACP, "There are not enough positive black male role models around, and then to have this come out...." Law professor Leroy Clark of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. goes further: "It's a dangerous film," he says, "and a lie to history."

Few others dispute the verisimilitude of what is, after all, a literary fiction (by a black author) that drew no such criticism. The debate draws force, rather, from the power of the screen. "When you make a book into a movie," says Vernon Jarrett, a black columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, "that means it's going to be seen by millions of people who don't read." In Jarrett's view, Glover's superb acting only made the bad more believable. "It's like putting poison in ice cream."

Glover, 38, who is now in Chicago co-starring in a production of Athol Fugard's A Lesson From Aloes, seems genuinely mystified by the charges. His position is that the Mister of the film is consistent with the novel, a realistic look at one black life as it was lived in the early decades of the 20th century. "Mister was an adequate representation of one particular story," he says. "He's a product of his past and his present and I think we showed that he has some capabilities for changing. It was a complex, multidimensional role."

Glover is lucky enough to have had a couple of those—as a farmhand in Places in the Heart and as a cowboy in Silverado, for example. (He also played a murderous Philly cop in Witness, another of the year's Oscar-nominated Best Pictures.) Yet Glover, having been offered mostly parts that "fall somewhere between pimp and drug dealer," shares with Purple critics the concern that black men are too often stereotyped. The critics, he suggests, may be overcompensating. "I think that the nature of oppression of black people in this country is so thorough and so brutal that there's sometimes a sense of self-hate. In order to pull ourselves out of that we say none of this—the beatings, the abuses—exists. We want to play it down and to play up the virtuous. I understand that, but the other stuff does exist."

Next to Glover, the biggest targets are Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey's character Sofia. Says Kwazi Geiggar of the L.A.-based Coalition Against Black Exploitation, which picketed Purple's premiere: "Spielberg doesn't have black people in his films. He deals with monsters and robots. What gives him the moral fortitude to portray a picture about me?" Adds Coalition chairman Legrand Clegg, "Black men are portrayed as brutal and savage with no redeeming features. Black women are servile and ignorant, with Oprah Winfrey playing the classic Aunt Jemima. White audiences love the fat, loud, black female. That's why producers produce [that caricature] with such frequency."

Glover and Spielberg won't find a better champion for the film than Winfrey, the Chicago talk show host turned actress. "The movie is not meant to represent black people or black men," says Winfrey, who received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. "It's one woman's story. At first, when people started complaining, I was very kind. Now I'm just ready to slap them." Glover, who did not get nominated, disagrees. He thinks that, finally, the debate will be good for films, good for black actors and good for the black community in general. "It's important for the NAACP and other organizations to question the film," he says. "It makes us actors more conscious of what we're doing. And that's all positive."

An unknown actress's advertising campaign draws ire

When Margaret Avery, unknown and 40ish, learned that Spielberg had cast her in the meaty role of Shug in Purple after first choice Tina Turner demurred, she threw her head back and prayed: "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Tina!"

If only she had stopped there. But noooo. On Friday, Jan. 24, the day Oscar nominations closed, Avery decided to give more thanks by taking out a full-page advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter. Though she claims she placed the ad late to avoid the look of "begging for votes," her note featured a thank you to God that said, in part, "Well God, I guess the time has come fo' the Academy voters to decide whether I is one of the Best Supporting Actresses this year or not." Written in patois, the note was inspired by Celie's letters to God in the book and film. Let it be noted that Avery does not play Celie. Let it be further noted that neither Avery's character nor Avery herself talks or writes in that style. "That ad cost me a kitchen stove [$1,160]," says Avery. "It's easy to give lip service to thanking God, but I wanted to do something that would force me to give up something. I had been wanting a stove for 10 years."

She may have lost the stove, but she did get plenty of heat. Insiders say they haven't seen such a shameless campaign for Oscar votes since 1961, when Chill Wills bought space glorifying his performance in The Alamo and referring to Academy members as his cousins. "It was silly because she was co-opting the persona of one of her co-stars to promote herself," says Peter Rainer, film critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. "I think everybody felt it was perfectly ridiculous. I had a good laugh."

Avery remains unapologetic. After all, she did win the nomination and a new career start. "A year ago I couldn't even get a job singing in Hollywood," she says. A divorcée, she was forced to rent out her house in the Hollywood Hills to make the payments. Avery and her daughter, Aisha, now 11, moved into the guest house. After hearing about film plans for Purple, she told her agent to get her an audition. The Spielberg office wasn't interested. It was then Avery said her first Purple prayer. "I said, 'I am Shug Avery, goddammit!' " She dashed off a note to Spielberg's casting agent saying she wouldn't take no for an answer. He relented. That Margaret and Shug have the same last name is pure coincidence, but Avery believes the part was preordained. "I feel that the Lord looked down on me and said, 'Margaret, I've been watching you scruffle for a long time and I'm going to bless you with The Color Purple.' "

So far Avery has received no new film offers. An Oscar might help, but winning may depend on how Academy voters react to letters to God. Margaret may find she should have gone for the stove.

The race issue helps win Spielberg an Oscar snub

On the Hollywood slap-in-the-face Richter scale, this one goes over the top. Purple wins a passel of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but director Spielberg ends up the forgotten man. Only once before in the Academy's 58 years has the director of a movie nominated for 11 or more awards failed to get a nomination himself. That was Sam Wood, who was passed over in 1942 for his film The Pride of the Yankees. Although Spielberg has never won an Oscar, he's been nominated three times: in 1977 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind; in 1981 for Raiders of the Lost Ark; in 1982 for E.T. The day after the Academy choices were announced, Warner Bros, issued a public statement congratulating everyone who was cited for Purple. "At the same time," said the angry studio, "the company is shocked and dismayed that the movie's primary creative force—Steven Spielberg—was not recognized."

Though the director maintained a dignified silence, others spoke out bitterly. When some complained that as a white man Spielberg had no right to make a film about blacks, Whoopi Goldberg got furious. "People are pissed," she said, "which is, to me, very ridiculous. It's like saying if you're not a junkie you can't tell anyone that heroin screws up your body."

Even a non-Purple fan like the Herald Examiner's Rainer saw the contradiction: "If a movie has 11 nominations, someone has to be responsible." Others were not so charitable to the man with the Midas touch. "None of the directors I know think the movie is good," says Henry (Always) Jaglom. "The picture is a sentimental cartoon. It's as if Walt Disney decided to direct The Grapes of Wrath. Spielberg means well. But there's a lesson here. People should direct what they know about."

Still, the blame for the Spielberg snub can't be attributed to the Academy at large. That's because each branch (cinematographers, costumers, etc.) nominates its own. "What we have here are 230 directors comparing each other's work," says director George (Doctors' Wives) Schaefer, who serves on the Academy's board of governors. "We are bound to be hypercritical. All this means is that many of his peers didn't think [Spielberg's] direction was outstanding."

Whatever the reasons, the Academy's back-of-the-hand may be the best thing to happen to The Color Purple. A strong sympathy vote could help Purple cop the Best Picture Oscar on March 24. Besides, who could resist voting for it, just to hear producer Spielberg's acceptance speech?

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Lansden,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Jacqueline Savaiano.