The Color Purple (1985) 4K UHD Review: Ms. Celie’s Blues

Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of the famed Alice Walker novel—about the journey a poor black woman, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), takes to find self-respect and overcome domestic abuse, racism, and sexism, in rural Georgia in the early 20th century—pries tears from me each time I see it.

Upon its theatrical release, folks criticized Spielberg’s effusive, visually dynamic (even romanticized) take—as though a sometimes corny, heart-on-the-sleeve approach softened the more sobering aspects of the novel. Knives were out for Spielberg, who (like director George Lucas) had amassed a reputation (and fortune) as Prince Confectioner of the Hollywood Blockbuster. (The Oscars nominated, but did not award, The Color Purple in 11 categories. The movie, however, was a hit.) 

To me, the heightened nature of the production helps dramatize the lyrical, deeply emotional impulse to live and be free that churns behind Celie’s initial passivity. It gives a bold voice to the extraordinary circumstances affecting her life, both the light and dark.

I also break a bit with the critical consensus that Spielberg’s first few attempts at directing more ‘serious’ films stumbled. Their virtues aside, Empire of the Sun (1987) and Always (1989) never quite connect for me. But with The Color Purple, he—and a stellar cast (Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Laurence Fishburne)—made a moving, life-affirming film. It rails at injustice. It rejoices in the beauty of life.

As part of its year-long centennial celebration for the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. Studio, Warner Bros. has released The Color Purple on 4K UHD and digital for the first time. Both versions contain older special features (that in HD look very SD): “Conversations with the Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen”; “A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple”; “Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple”; “The Color Purple: The Musical”; and two teaser spots and the theatrical trailer. The digital release has a new special feature: “The Color Purple: A Bold New Take,” a featurette on the 2023 film version of The Color Purple.

The clarity of the 4K transfer is stunning. Allen Daviau’s cinematography captures a rustic, radiant South. The new transfer enhances every frame. This is art.

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Jack Cormack

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