Spielberg scrubs and softens `The Color Purple'

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I'm still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. That's an example of the gritty prose and folksy philosophizing that earned Alice Walker a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for her novel ``The Color Purple,'' about the hard family life of a poor black woman in the South.

But don't look for Walker's proud ethnicity and deliberately rough-hewn style in Steven Spielberg's version of the story. Although he keeps the plot and characters largely intact, his movie is wildly different from its source: a series of letter-perfect set pieces, rooted less in felt experience than in time-tested Hollywood formulas.

In other words, this is very much a Steven Spielberg picture, even if the subject is surprisingly grown-up for the director of ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' and the Indiana Jones movies. The fragmented phrases of the book, so expressive on the printed page, fight valiantly for life in Benno Meyjes's efficient screenplay. Spielberg's mass-appeal sensibility hunts them down and cleans them up, though, scrubbing and regimenting them within an inch of their lives. In place of the book's raw humanity, he gi ves us filmmaking by the numbers.

Fortunately, they're terrific numbers. Spielberg's mastery of Hollywood technique has never been more clear, flooding the screen with bold images and vivid gestures. The effects are calculated so precisely and crafted so rigidly that ``realism'' soon caves in to the snazzy artifice of classical Hollywood melodrama, smoothing over the story in a way that has little to do with Walker's blunt, first-person immediacy. Yet the subtly stylized cinematography and razor-sharp editing offer pleasures of their ow n. And there's a true kinship between Spielberg's world-view, which is incorrigibly childlike, and the sentimental optimism that dominates Walker's novel after its deceptively bleak beginning.

The plot focuses on Celie, a used and abused black woman whose miseries seem boundless. She has two illegitimate children, the result of domestic rape, and both have been spirited away against her will. Her husband is a selfish pig who treats her like a slave. The only person she desperately loves, her sister Nettie, has run away to avoid a similar life -- and could be dead as far as Celie knows, since her husband intercepts and hides any mail she receives.

Ironically, the only thing to brighten her life is an occasional visit from her husband's lover, an earthy nightclub singer. After a hostile start, their relationship becomes sexual and then matures beyond the physical level into a deep and uplifting affection. From this unlikely mentor Celie learns the rudiments of self-respect and the ability to raise her thoughts above the awful here-and-now.

Her awakening gathers more steam when she finds her sister's long-hidden letters, written from Africa, where Nettie has become a missionary. Celie's mental and moral growth has a healthy effect on others, moreover, and by the end of the tale even the worst villain has redeemed himself.

In filming this story, Spielberg has softened everything but its sentimentality, which he revels in. The book's sexual (and homosexual) activity is retained, but stripped of the explicit detail with which Walker describes it. Typically for a self-absorbed Hollywood production, the sequences in Africa are reduced from a major plot-element to a colorful digression, pumped up to an artificial climax when Spielberg intercuts (for no good reason) a rageful moment in Georgia and a painful tribal ceremony. Eve n the brutal realities of Celie's younger years are dampened, although they remain harrowing.

While these decisions reduce the story's complexity, they heighten the movie's effect as a Saturday-night entertainment, which is what Spielberg's artistic personality is all about. He goes for quick emotions and flashy images every time, but goes for them with such skill that it's hard to complain without feeling like a fussbudget.

Then too, given the near-absence of blacks from American screens in recent years, he deserves an Oscar for tackling such a subject at all -- and for assembling a superb cast that points up Hollywood's self-destructive stupidity in underusing the splendid pool of black performing talent.

In her first movie role, Whoopi Goldberg is a strong Celie, mugging a bit too much but giving her character an endearing warmth. Danny Glover, best known for ``Places in the Heart,'' does his most versatile screen work to date as Celie's husband. Oprah Winfrey is a revelation as a feisty woman with hardships as bad as Celie's, and Adolpe Caesar and Margaret Avery also stand out. Allen Daviau did the lush cinematography, and Michael Kahn was the alert film editor.

The movie is rated PG-13, reflecting some lesbian and heterosexual actions, rough language, and a good deal of emotional violence.

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