AN AMERICAN VIEW

When E.T. goes to Georgia

Fred Bruning March 24 1986
AN AMERICAN VIEW

When E.T. goes to Georgia

Fred Bruning March 24 1986

When E.T. goes to Georgia

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Fred Bruning

A black writer and his wife went to see The Color Purple recently and left the theatre ripping mad. Oh, yes, the movie made them laugh and perhaps sniff a little, too, but any decent melodrama might have accomplished as much. Indeed, it was the surfeit of phony emotions and one-dimensional characters—of scenes too pretty and lines too familiar—that sent the couple into the street registering their objections with operatic gusto. For these individuals, The Color Purple had almost nothing to do with the color black.

When he got to his typewriter, the fellow, a Boston-based reporter named Derrick Jackson, set down his thoughts. “In the end,” Jackson wrote, “The Color Purple left us with the acute pain deep in the heart that comes with realizing that once again, black American culture had been stolen from us.” Later in the piece, the journalist wrote, “There are 26 million of us [ blacks] all around and with every day that I get older, I fear that whites know us less.”

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s schmaltzy interpretation of Alice Walker’s tough and unrelenting novel is not a cause of black-white alienation but a rather predictable effect. Like many other black Americans, Jackson argues that Spielberg could not be expected to provide Walker’s story the authenticity it demanded. The director was a whiz at adventure yarns {Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and science fiction thrillers {Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.), but hardly had established himself as an explicator of major social themes. What did Steven Spielberg know about the hardships of blacks in the agrarian South? What did he know of blacks at all?

On cue, Spielberg delivered precisely the kind of film that Jackson had anticipated—a piece that relies heavily on bang-bang production values and little on insight or credible emotion. At worst, the movie collapses into a burlesque worthy of the Three Stooges. One character falls through the roof a couple of times. A woman hurls her breakfast plate with the velocity of a cruise missile. The male lead nearly destroys his kitchen in a sorry attempt to prepare a meal. Bombast is not what Spielberg needed. Intelligence would have been the superior choice. Many blacks ask how Spielberg got

hold of the property to begin with. Why aren’t there black film-makers with the kind of clout and cash flow necessary for such an ambitious project? And what was Alice Walker thinking when she surrendered to Spielberg a work that already had generated considerable debate because of its unflattering portrayal of black men? Just how loud did money talk, anyway?

Blacks may complain themselves silly about The Color Purple but the film is a smash. It has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards and, although Spielberg is not in the running for best director, Hollywood obviously finds much admirable about his work. White audiences seem to agree. In upscale city neighborhoods and at the suburban multiplex theatres, folks are lining up for the film—and what perhaps seems a rare chance to see how the other side lives.

Where race is concerned, the great

For many Americans, Steven Spielberg's movie version of The Color Purple had almost nothing to do with the color black

American melting pot functions as though heated by a birthday candle. If blacks and whites had managed to become a bit better acquainted during the past 300 years, after all, a film like The Color Purple would be less of a worry. More to the point, the movie might never have been made. But we are separate still, black Americans and white. Integration remains little more than a theoretical construct. Too often, social intercourse amounts only to a high five between white and black players when a home run has been walloped or basketball slammed through a hoop. “Progress” is a word to be used with utmost caution.

On the surface, this may seem a period of unparalleled civility. No longer is it acceptable in most quarters to utter harsh racial terms or use skin color as the basis for a few good laughs. We hold doors for one another and politely press elevator buttons and smile our good-mornings. We have the same sense of national purpose, it often seems, and certainly an identical yearning for a share of the American

dream. History is our common burden, though, and a heavy one at that.

Recently a black man in his 60s was speaking about plans for the future. His children were out of college. His wife, a social worker, had enjoyed a fulfilling career. The fellow himself was ready to retire from a demanding job in the field of labor relations. Likely, his wife and he would buy a place in Florida and watch the clouds roll by.

Then the conversation turned to his background—to all that might have been and never was. The man had been a pilot in the Second World War and, despite wide combat experience, found upon discharge that no airline would hire him, or, for that matter, any of his black colleagues. Commercial flying was not a field deemed suitable for blacks. Instead, the fellow became a change clerk in the New York subway system. With pluck and determination, he advanced through the ranks and finally won a management position. But he never again flew an airplane. “That’s just the way it was,” he said. .

Blacks still take a beating in employment, education and housing. But white Americans have become complacent and perhaps a little bored with equal rights. We assert that things are better and then skip along to other subjects. Look, we say, the nation took a long weekend this year to observe Martin Luther King’s birthday. How’s that for liberation?

One might argue that The Color Purple also perceives America as a reconciled nation—a place whose garish past exercises only incidental leverage on the future. Spielberg’s characters suffered, yes, but in a manner that suggested black culture was strangely inured to pain, as though violence and despair served almost as a diversion for a misdirected people. Influences of environment, and especially of slavery, mostly were ignored. The movie might have been set in Moravia.

It may not be true that only a minority film-maker could handle Alice Walker’s story, though blacks hardly could be blamed for arguing the point. Not much on the shelves of our film libraries recommends otherwise. Still, art is supposed to produce epiphany— the moment when wisdom exceeds experience. For 2V2 hours, The Color Purple occupies the screen but that precious moment, sadly, never arrives.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.