Nothing can capture the rich, lyrical prose of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which details the life of a rural black family on a Georgia farm starting in 1909.  The novel took home the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and proved difficult to craft a script from.  Eventually one was written by Menno Meyjes after Walker deemed her own draft unsatisfactory.  With its many layered themes—from racial identity to misogyny to sexuality to God—it is a deeply personal work that requires a deeply personal movie.

This isn’t quite that movie.  Obviously after many commercial hits, Spielberg had hit a point in his career where he wanted to be taken seriously as a master craftsman.  Steven Spielberg means well, but I think that’s part of what undercuts the film.  The other is that there’s a narrative/emotional distance between the film and the audience.  Like with the movie Amistad, the motions and production of the movie hit all the right notes, but there is a … connection to the subject matter that isn’t there.  When that personal connection is there, he can craft Schindler’s List.  When it’s not, he produces The Color Purple.

A gentle, well-intentioned whitewash—using generalities, character short cuts, and a whiff of paternal condescension—in addition to a “sexwash”, as many of the novels complex sexual themes are diluted down.  Alice Walker’s vivid characters still crackle with life despite the script.  At the center is Celie (Whoopi Goldberg).  At its heart, The Color Purple is a love story between Celie and her sister, Nettie, from whom she is separated at childhood, and, later in life, the blues singer Shug Avery.  In the novel, Celie’s story is told through a series of letters, some never sent, many never received, most addressed to God.  As a young girl, she gives birth to two children and is then married into a life of servitude to a cruel, distant man she can refer to only as Mr (Danny Glover).

Whoopi Goldberg, in her debut performance (if only she would keep picking such interesting and meaningful roles, as she never quite blossomed into the career she should have had), had a difficult job to do.  Despite the pathology porn aspect of Celia’s life, she has to gain our sympathy and propel what could be an utterly bleak story forward.

It’s stories like this that make me think that one of the greatest miracles in the history of the church (after Jesus’ resurrection) is the emergence of the black church. That somehow Christianity took root within the context of slavery and took off. At the time, Christianity was used as a weapon, pure and simple. While some people may have legitimately wanted to evangelize the “heathens,” for the most part, Christianity was used as a means of control – used to strip away any trace of the native religion–from animism to Islam–black folks were forced to unlearn this aspect of their culture.

There is a biblical story that can be used to illustrate this process. During the time of Exile, when the Israelites had been taken into captivity to Babylon, their best and brightest were re-educated. They had to adopt .the Babylonian culture, learn the Babylonian language, learn the Babylonian religion, and take on new (Babylonian) names. This is the context for the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, for example.

With American slavery, the African way of life and belief was over-ridden with a new doctrinal system, one twisted for the purpose of transformation and intended to be a spiritual opiate. Mixed in with the teachings about God–with the passages on the master-slave relationship emphasized–were fun facts like how black people were created less than a white man. How black people (via Ham) were cursed to be slaves. How black people ought to be thankful for them having been taken in by their benevolent masters.  Yet God can use the best intentions, failed methods, and even evil and unjust acts for the furtherance of His own ends. He did so with the crucifixion of Christ. He did so with slavery and the black church.

Hope is what sustains us during dark times.  There’s hope because Christ gave us a simple mission: to join Him in being a blessing to others. Reality says that not everyone will buy into that mission, even those who profess to believe in Christ, but I have hope that it’s a right and true mission. Our hope isn’t a “wait until we get to heaven and it will all work out” hope. It’s a “the kingdom begins now” hope. It’s the hope that says in light of Christ reconciling us to God, an act of supreme love, we are to love others. It’s the hope that says just as He reached out to the forgotten, those “outside” the establishment (religious or civil), we are to care for the “least of these”, widows, orphans, the poor.

Spielberg’s film is a carefully calibrated production, dodging the shame and crimes of racism in favor of a tale of the perverse trials black women faced.  It’s a testament to his consummate skill as a director that even with such a subtle failing, Spielberg can deliver The Color Purple.