Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Color Purple

A bit of a preamble before I actually get to it: I ended up watching two important films concerning black performers and the Oscars this past week. First was Sounder, 1972 Best Picture nominee and the first film to earn nominations Actor and Actress nominations for back performers then and then 1985 Best Picture nominee The Color Purple, the first film to earn nominations for multiple actresses. Incidentally, both of them period films about black characters (a rarity) would make a fine double feature.

Now on to the business at hand. The subject of this week’s HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT wherein we pick our favourite shot from the film for Nathaniel is The Color Purple. The film is so dense, opportunities for Best Shot run throughout especially with Spielbrg’s not subtle direction towering over. It’s not a criticism, the tale is one of melodrama and the deliberate artfulness of the camerawork does lead to multiple chances for beauty. The film has so many legitimate shots calling you to consider it as “best” I feel a bit badly that the dozen or so that I considered all had more to do with character than actual camera placement, but it’s only indicative of the way I feel about The Color Purple. For a film with such fine assets on a number of fronts (there are some lovely things that cinematographer Allen Daviau does with light in some scenes) my appreciation for the film always centres on its performances; two of them specifically – Goldberg and Avery.

In fact, before I decided to rewatch it, I suspected just where I would end up choosing my favourite shot would come from – Shug’s first performance. The Color Purple is almost claustrophobic on how harrowing it is at times, only letting in room for joy in brief spells and one of the most beautifully joyous is an hour in when we see Shug Avery performing at Harpo’s. Margaret Avery’s turn as Shug – a woman knowledgeable of her talents and in control of her faculties – is something of an ideal that timid Celie spends much of the film aspiring to be and this shot of her longingly gazing at Shug in action is such a fine window into what she’s feeling at the moment.
The best thing about the film is Goldberg and her ability to convey emotion so excellently without speaking. Celie is afraid to speak for so much of the film it’s essential and the feel of longing is potent in that shot above. It’s up to Avery to justify all the admiration that look on Celie’s face demands, and she acquits herself beautifully. So when Shug stops shimmying to announce:

This song I’m about to sing is called Miss Celie’s Blues…

it’s a powerful moment.

For an hour we’ve seen only her sister show Celie true affection and with this moment the audience AND Celie are allowed to realise that, yes, there is room for happiness here. The song (Oscar nominated) is beautiful on its own, but it’s the earnestness on Avery’s face that really sells it. It’s my favourite scene in the film, and it’s rare that my favourite shot manages to come from my favourite scene but this shot in its simplicity is hard for me to ignore.

(The first shot is my BEST shot, but the reaction shot from Celie is essential.)

About two decades later when the film had its stage incarnation in the romantic affair between Celie and Shug was not able to shine through but as much as the film version is coy about the not simply platonic love between the two ladies this shot suggests it. In a room full of mostly men Shug only has eyes for Avery. Shug in her red - a colour symbolic of so much, and even the peacock feather has become something of a gay symbol. A deliberate touch? I doubt it, but it does give one pause. But it's the clasped hands of the women that gives the shot its power. The two women, joined by their hands, are the focus of the shot and Mister with his back turned to them seems to be placed almost like a jilted lover unable to watch the woman he desires and the woman he’s married to sharing a moment that he will never be able to. They’re not actually whispering sweet nothings at each other and declaring eternal love but the within the context of this shot they might as well as. Nothing else matters in this moment but Shug’s words to Celie and Celie’s grateful appreciation of them. The moment is underscored by the utterance of a lyric, “Sister remember your name no twister gonna steal your stuff away.” And of course not. The Celie from five minutes ago might have been in danger of forgetting her name, but not this one. Spielberg might not actually be showing it, but she’s found love. Little by little Shug's vivacious redness is going to seep into her life.
That grin she gives in response to the dedication says it all. I believe it's the first look of unbridled joy on adult Celie's face and it's a sign of better things to come. Slowly, yes, but surely just the same.

Head over to The Film Experience for more conversation on The Color Purple.

1 comment:

Shane Slater said...

Lovely writeup Andrew. I agree with your analysis. For a film so strikingly well-shot, it's surprisingly even more memorable for it's characters.