The first mature drama directed by Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple, has arrived on Blu-ray. This harrowing period piece, based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, has become curiously underrated in Spielberg’s filmography. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan seem to be held in much higher regard, so if you haven’t seen The Color Purple in awhile this is a perfect time to revisit it. Despite being a significant box office success, a backlash developed against the film based primarily upon the fact that a white director was helming this adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about African-Americans. What seems somewhat overlooked, more than twenty-five years after its release, is how nuanced and deeply felt his work on the film was.
Of course, the outstanding performances are what carry the film regardless of one’s opinion of whether Spielberg was right for the job. In her film debut, Whoopi Goldberg plays Celie Harris, a woman born into crushing abuse at the hands of her father during the Depression era. Goldberg delivers a powerful performance as Celie’s abuse continues by the man she is forced to marry. That man, Albert Johnson, is played with seething ferocity by Danny Glover. Known to Celie as “Mister,” Johnson forces the separation of Celie from her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). The Color Purple tracks Celie’s process of discovery her own self worth despite all the injustices being committed against her. Goldberg makes the transformation palpably real, allowing the audience to see Celie truly overcome adversity to earn respect for herself.
Every bit as effective is Oprah Winfrey, who plays Sofia, the wife of Albert Johnson’s son. Sofia refuses to stand down to the men who try to treat her as a subservient. Ultimately this results in a very tragic situation for the headstrong Sofia, as she is severely punished for standing up to those who would disrespect her. Winfrey is a far cry from the talk show giant we have known her as for so long. Though she very rarely exercised her acting chops again following this Academy Award-nominated supporting role, she makes an indelible impression as Sofia.
Debuting on Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer, The Color Purple presents a satisfyingly natural, film-like image. Much of the cinematography was intentionally a bit soft focus. This might be off-putting to viewers expecting a razor sharp picture, but truth be told the presentation accurately represents Allen Daviau’s Oscar-nominated cinematography. Detail remains quite strong. Beads of sweat streaming down people’s faces, individual leaves of plants in the fields, all of these are well defined. Not a vibrantly colorful movie overall, the green of the fields, the earth tones of wooden flooring and dirt, and of course the purple flowers are all well represented. Intentionally underlit night scenes suffer a tiny bit from so-called black crush (a lack of detail resulting in a dark, murky look). None of these very minor issues detract significantly from a strong high definition presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix leaves little room for disappointment as well. Dialogue is free of distortion, well centered, and always easy to understand. Being a character-driven period drama, there aren’t a wide variety of complex sound effect-oriented scenes. That said, atmospheric noises are evenly and realistically spread out between the right and left channels as well as the surrounds. Crowd noise during the music performance scenes also realistically surrounds the viewer. The real treat of this Blu-ray audio presentation is the fantastic score by Quincy Jones. The music sounds truly impressive as it wraps around the viewer, bonding the score to the overall viewing experience.
Fans of The Color Purple who are expecting newly produced supplemental features will be disappointed. There is nothing exclusive to this Blu-ray edition, with the exception of a nice DigiBook case that includes forty pages of color photographs. The video supplements are ported over from the previous DVD release, and as a result all are presented in standard definition. I hadn’t seen any of these before, so if you’re in the same boat you are likely to be pleased with these featurettes. “Conversations with Ancestors,” just under a half-hour, tracks the transition of the original novel to the silver screen. “A Collaboration of Spirits” is a twenty-four minute look at the film’s casting. This was my favorite segment, with emotional reminiscing from Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey. “Cultivating a Classic” takes a closer look at the film’s production, while “The Color Purple: The Musical” deals with Quincy Jones’ contributions.
Though it was completely shut out at the Academy Awards, depite eleven nominations, The Color Purple has endured as a highly emotional drama, sensitively directed by Steven Spielberg and sensationally acted by a wonderful cast.