I guess I’m not the only one who was introduced to Whoopi Goldberg by her distinctive comedy work, sometimes slapstick, sometimes silly, sometimes intelligent, but always broad and loud. So it was always kind of surprising for me that she actually started her movie career as a serious dramatic actress in Spielberg’s sentimental movie version of The Color Purple, a story about abuse, incest and spiritual liberation. Hers is certainly one of the more acclaimed movie debuts in history and, considering her acclaim and her Golden-Globe-win, she might easily have become the first black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar if it hadn’t been for Geraldine Page who combined a strong performance with her legendary reputation and over-due status. In the end, it all worked out well for Whoopi since she would finally win an Oscar 5 years later after changing over to the territory we all know and love her for – the hilarious and loud comedy.
In The Color Purple, Whoopi Goldberg played Celie – a young, uneducated, apparently simple-minded woman who lives with an abusive husband after having already been abused by her father of whom she received two children. Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t enter the movie until about 30 minutes and she has a very difficult entrance – because up to that time the young Celie had been played by Desreta Jackson who gave a very moving and effective performance as the abused and suffering Celie so far and also delivered the movie’s most heartbreaking moment, the separation from her beloved sister by her husband. It is very often rather annoying or disappointing for a viewer when a character one has come close to is suddenly played by a different actor and especially in this case, when the young actress has left such a strong impression like Desreta Jackson, it could have been a disastrous interruption of the flow of the story, but thankfully Whoopi Goldberg was more than up to the task to take over the part and give such a strong and powerful performance that the change goes by almost unnoticed.
Like every serious movie that Spielberg makes, there is a distinctive ‘Spielberg-touch’, the danger of coming to close into the territory of cheap sentimentality or mistreatment of the seriousness of the topic. The Color Purple is certainly sentimental but surprisingly it still works very well thanks to the strong cast – the strong female cast, that is. Danny Glover lacks too much credibility and he also suffers from the fact that his character, an abusive and unlikable husband, is treated too often like some sort of comic-relief which destroys too much of the effect and feels too out-of-place. The whole movie sometimes dares to collapse under Spielberg’s touch but it is to the credit of Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey that everything still turns out to be so moving and captivating.
The Color Purple shows how friendship and support help Celie to find herself and her freedom – and love. Even though the relationship between Celie and Shug was changed from love to friendship in the movie, the long kiss between them and the camera movement still tell enough. Whoopi Goldberg is smart enough to avoid any pathos in her role. She plays Celie with a straight-forward dramatic intension, mixed with a little sense of comedy. The final scenes are again a perfect example of the effective sentimentality of the story – it feels a little too manipulative for its own good but the whole reunion scene is so heartbreaking thanks to Whoopi Goldberg whose facial expressions and shaking body work so perfectly with Spielberg’s concept. She runs along with the sentimentality of the story but at the same time she keeps her dignity and rises above the directorial intentions – just like she did for the entire movie. Who can forget her ‘Nettie!’ when she finally reunites with her sister? It’s a perfect delivery of a single name that expresses excitement, happiness, disbelief and realization of a new life and a new time. It’s the highpoint in Celie’s journey of self discovery, a gift for her own strength. Sentimental? Sure. But does Whoopi Goldberg know how to find every nuance of dignity and heartbreaking emotions while never selling the character short to gain the audience’s sympathy? Definitely.
Just as moving is the scene when Celie finds the letters of her sister. Suddenly, Nettie, who has left Celie’s life years ago, comes back and all the lost hopes and feelings come back to Celie. Again, Whoopi Goldberg wonderfully underplays the scene without any great emotions and instead lets the moving situation influence her and react. This word perfectly describes her performance which is so often a ‘reacting’ performance but Whoopi Goldberg also knows how to demonstrate that Celie is much more active than expected, a curious and smart woman.
At the table scene, Whoopi Goldberg wonderfully stays in character when Celie suddenly snaps – and thanks to Whoopi Goldberg’s magnificent portrayal so far, this has been the moment everyone has been waiting for. When Celie suddenly speaks up and defies her husband and the conventions and finds the way how to use her inner strength – she didn’t just find this inner strength, it has been inside her for a long time but now she arrived at the moment when she dares to let it out. Whoopi Goldberg keeps Celie’s calm safe, she doesn’t go over-the-top with grand emotions but plays this scene with a gripping intensity that becomes almost magical.
Whoopi Goldberg creates an always growing woman, a flowing character who seems steady and withdrawn but grows scene by scene which Whoopi Goldberg underlines with an intelligent and heartbreaking performance that brings all the tragedies of Celie’s existence to life without letting them appear too sentimental. For this, she gets