Why Did Director Steven Spielberg Receive Backlash Over The Color Purple? Find Out

When the Color Purple movie by Steven Spielberg came out, it took in a whopping $98 million at the box office. But it also got a fair amount of criticism for some specific reasons. Find out

Published on May 22, 2024  |  04:51 PM IST |  48.9K
IMDb
The Color Purple (PC: IMDB)

Steven Spielberg as an auteur, made a unique status for himself. With his distinct visual style, thematic consistency, personal investment in his films, and innovative storytelling, he has become one of the most influential personalities in the history of cinema. Spielberg has been nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Director, winning twice, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Nobody understands blockbusters better than him. He has done films ranging from science-fiction to mature and dramatic films. But rarely he made a historical films. And, that's where The Color Purple stands out in his filmography. 

Steven Spielberg is daring when it comes to making art for the film industry. The Color Purple, a 1985 film directed by the renowned director, was based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Although the movie received mostly positive reviews, several people thought Steven Spielberg should have been replaced as director by a Black person. Despite the commercial success of the film, it also faced backlash for the presentation of its theme and characters.


Why Steven Spielberg received backlash for The Color Purple?

When the movie came out, it took in a whopping $98 million at the box office and received positive reviews from critics, including Gene Siskel and Janet Maslin, who praised Steven Spielberg in particular for his newfound ability to rise above "youthful entertainments" and prove that he was skilled enough to tell a story about such a serious subject.

Many well-known Black critics expressed concerns when the film was initially released, with the majority of the criticism centered on Spielberg's treatment of Walker's material. Spielberg was accused by renowned writer James Baldwin of "mangling the poetic vision" of Walker's book.

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In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg addressed the widespread discussion surrounding his decision to direct "The Color Purple":

"Most of the criticism came from directors that felt that we had overlooked them and that it should have been a Black director telling a Black story. That was the main criticism."

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (IMDb)

Black directors argued that Spielberg shouldn't have helmed the film, emphasizing the importance of having a Black director for a Black story.

Spielberg also admitted to "softening" the book's more brutal elements. He admitted, "The other criticism was that I had softened the book. I have always copped to that." He explained that Alice Walker was frequently present during filming and had the opportunity to intervene if she felt a scene deviated too much from her vision. 

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Spielberg said that most probably a female director might have been more fitted to bring the rawness of certain scenes, admitting that he felt somewhat apprehensive about it. Despite the backlash, The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars, although it did not win any. Nevertheless, Spielberg's direction earned him his first Directors Guild of America Award. 

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Alice Walker reflected on Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple

Alice Walker, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, spoke about how she saw Steven Spielberg's film adaptation. In an interview with Black Film, Walker was asked if she was satisfied with Spielberg’s film. She discussed her initial mixed feelings:

“Yes, but I had a hard time the very first time I saw the film because I saw it in an empty theatre. It grew on me, and by the time it opened in New York City, I loved it, as did all of my family, some of whom came to the opening.”

Walker acknowledged that Spielberg's vision for the film differed from her own.  She believed her original screenplay depicted a more "s*xier" relationship between the characters Celie and Shug Avery. However, she accepted Spielberg's creative choices, stating, "His angle was very different. And I’m really at peace with that."

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Spielberg's film managed to do well both critically and commercially despite some criticism. It got a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned a significant profit, grossing $98 million at the box office with a budget of only $15 million.  

You can rent/buy The Color Purple on Prime Video. 

ALSO READ: THROWBACK: When Steven Spielberg Revealed How His Family Walked Out Of Morgan Freeman Starrer Amistad Movie

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