Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Color Purple and Fellini

Steven Spielberg shocked audiences when he announced he was working alongside author Alice Walker to adapt her novel The Color Purple. The book, published only three years earlier, had been a huge success, but had also sparked a massive controversy due to its content. The movie, though a commercial success, was just as controversial among audiences. Some praised its emphasis on strong female characters, while others criticized the fact that nearly all the black men depicted are treated as monsters. It was a very unusual approach to its subject, largely because The Color Purple is not so much a story about racism as it is about sexism within the black community.

The critical reception of this film varied drastically. Even today, it is a film people either love or hate. Even Walker herself expressed mixed feelings. Overall, it's not a particularly great film. While the feminist aspects can be satisfying to witness, the characters are hard to tell apart, the story is hard to follow, and the ending is padded out to make the film much longer than it needs to be. In addition to all this, it is not even original. When one examines the basic plot and arc of the color purple, a few parallels start to become surprisingly clear. There is a young woman whose family basically sells her to a man who promises to treat her well but turns out to be abusive. Most of the film centers on the relationship between these two, with another individual with whom they frequently cross paths and who tries to help the young woman.

If this sounds at all familiar, it is because this story has been done before. All  The Color Purple did was relocate the setting and introduce a predominantly black cast. The plot is actually taken from a 1954 Italian film directed by Federico Fellini, La Strada. In this movie, a young woman by the name of Gelsomina is literally bought by a travelling circus performer who goes by the name of Zampano. The rest of the film centers on him treating her like garbage, with another character known as "The Fool" constantly trying to help her.

This particular narrative was produced in a very different social context. Fellini was borrowing the ideas of Italian Neo-Realist filmmaking, a movement characterized by the use of low budgets, unknown actors, an emphasis on location shooting, and the depiction of everyday problems faced by working class individuals. La Strada is not a perfect example of Neo-Realism. The only way it fully resembles that movement is in its subject matter, but the influence is still evident. The struggle here was one of class and impoverishment, but in order for it to be used in The Color Purple a few changes had to be made.

The Color Purple has more or less the exact same setup. In this case, the man who the audience comes to know as "Mister" rides up to the protagonist's family farm and asks her father for his daughter's hand in marriage. While no monetary gain is involved for the father, there might as well be. He almost instantly agrees to let Mister take Celie away as though she were merely property he no longer needed. This is not unlike Zampano approaching Gelsomina's mother and paying to take her daughter away. Adding to the parallels is the man's public image. Both Mister and Zampano feign kindness and only reveal their true selves once the girl is taken away.

To bring these ideas further, the three major characters featured in Fellini's La Strada all have counterparts in The Color Purple. Mister is Zampano, Celie is Gelsomina (although admittedly a somewhat stronger version), and Shug is the Fool. All of them fill out very similar roles. Mister purchases Celie from her family and then treats her like crap. Shug tries to give Celie hope. Celie herself is taken without any say and forced to take Mister's abuse (though unlike Gelsomina she does eventually stand up to him and escape). Then a circus caravan is replaced by a farm, with issues of working class poverty being replaced by racism and misogyny.

The outcome of the events in The Color Purple is noticeably different from that of La Strada. In the latter, Gelsomina submits to Zampano despite having every opportunity to get away from him, only to eventually be abandoned. Zampano ends up killing the fool, and Gelsomina is later mentioned to have apparently died from the trauma of watching this happen. Celie in The Color Purple actually does manage to stand up to Mister (though not until very late in the film) and eventually escapes with Shug to a better life. However, for the abuser there is still a similar fate in store. Both Mister and Zampano find their lives spiraling downwards at the end. Their worlds are crumbling around them as they face the consequences of their actions.

Examining the details closely reveals a simple unfortunate truth: The Color Purple has plagiarized the work of Federico Fellini. It is more or less a complete remake of the 1954 Italian film, right down to the individual characters, only rewritten to appear to deal with different themes. Alice Walker's iconic novel is nothing more than an all-black rip-off of an earlier Italian film relocated to rural America with only a few small changes to distinguish it from its predecessor.

1 comment:

  1. Strong words to say one plagiarized the other. I haven't seen La Strada so I can't say how I feel about it one way or the other. However, I will say that any charges should lay at the feet of Spielberg, not Walker. The book plays out in a fairly different manner than the film, hence her reservations about it. Anyone who read it before the film would have a very different idea of what the movie should be. Spielberg crafted it to fit into a feature film by greatly exaggerating some aspects and diminishing others. Very interesting read, John.