Picks and Pans Review: The Color Purple

updated 01/06/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/06/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Carrying to extremes the Mary Poppins dictum that "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down," director Steven Spielberg has sprinkled the whole cannister over his film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer prizewinning novel. By prettifying or ignoring the poverty, racism, rape, incest and lesbianism that course through Walker's stinging prose, Spielberg has made a movie your Aunt Fanny can see without blushing. Perhaps that was his intention. Despite the success of the book, films about the black experience in Georgia at the turn of the century don't exactly guarantee box office. So Spielberg made compromises, apparently to gain wider acceptance. He might just get it. There is much that entertains, entrances and electrifies in the film. That's true at least if you can ignore Spielberg's cloying, calendar-art lyricism, outrageously overdrawn performances (Adolph Caesar, Dana Ivey) and Quincy Jones's poundingly obtrusive score. To his credit, however, he knows how to hook an audience. We meet Celie, the central character, at 14. And Spielberg gives the scenes of childhood (no one is better with young actors) a shattering poignance. Already Celie has had two children by a man she believes is her father, had her babies sold off to African missionaries and been traded in marriage to a widower with four kids and a penchant for cruelty that includes separating her from her beloved sister. Newcomer Desreta Jackson plays the young Celie, and she is heartbreaking. The older Celie is played by comic actress Whoopi Goldberg in a justly celebrated screen debut (the National Board of Review has named her 1985's best actress). Through her resplendent smile and wounded eyes, we see clearly a world that Menno Mayjes' screenplay barely hints at. Whoopi is a wow. It is too bad that Spielberg shies away from Celie's lesbian affair with her husband's lover, a beautiful blues singer deftly played by Margaret Avery. The relationship had less to do with sex than caring (men had only abused Celie), but the point—a major one—is lost onscreen, Spielberg's fabric-softener approach also hurts the work of the talented Danny (Silverado) Glover as Celie's husband. His last-minute transformation to goody-goody just won't wash. Chicago talk show host Oprah Winfrey comes through as a vital, vigorous source of joy as Celie's liberated friend. Winfrey end Goldberg give the movie a sense of pride that is the film's final glory. When all the arguments end over whether Spielberg can make a serious movie or not (a silly debate really—ET was a serious and great movie)—that pride at least will make The Color Purple endure. (PG-13)

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