Filmed in Anson and Union counties in North Carolina, the film tells the story of a young African American girl named Celie Harris and shows the problems African American women faced during the early 20th century, including domestic violence, incest, pedophilia, poverty, racism, and sexism. Celie is transformed as she finds her self-worth through the help of two strong female companions.
Set in rural Georgia during the first 40 years of the twentieth century, the film centers on the life of a fictional character named Celie, an oppressed black woman. In the film, Celie endures rape, sexism, the loss of her children at birth, a tyrannical husband, domestic violence, chauvinism, the loss of her sister, and the demoralization of her friend (Sofia), who also loses her freedom to the law. Celie and the other characters tell a story of overcoming racism and misogyny in the rural south during this time period, depicting a struggle for equality. Celie maintains her resolve throughout the story. By the end of the film, the characters have undergone remarkable changes and relationships have begun to heal.
The Color Purple was shown at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival as a non-competing title.
The film received positive reviews from critics, receiving praise for its acting, direction, screenplay, score, and production merits, but was criticized by some for being "over-sentimental" and "stereotypical." Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 88% based on reviews from 26 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10. The site's consensus states: "A sentimental tale that reveals great emotional truths in American history."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film four stars, calling it "the year's best film." He also praised Whoopi Goldberg, calling her role "one of the most amazing debut performances in movie history" and predicting she would win the Academy Award for Best Actress. (She was nominated but did not win.) Ebert wrote of The Color Purple:
The world of Celie and the others is created so forcibly in this movie that their corner of the South becomes one of those movie places — like Oz, like Tara, like Casablanca — that lay claim to their own geography in our imaginations. The affirmation at the end of the film is so joyous that this is one of the few movies in a long time that inspires tears of happiness, and earns them.
Ebert's long-time television collaborator, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, praised the film as "triumphantly emotional and brave," calling it Spielberg's "successful attempt to enlarge his reputation as a director of youthful entertainments." Siskel wrote that The Color Purple was "a plea for respect for black women." Although acknowledging that the film was a period drama, he praised its "... incredibly strong stand against the way black men treat black women. Cruel is too kind a word to describe their behavior. The principal black men in The Color Purple use their women — both wives and daughters — as sexual chattel."
New York Times film critic Janet Maslin noted the film's divergence from Walker's book, but made the case that this shift works:
Mr. Spielberg has looked on the sunny side of Miss Walker's novel, fashioning a grand, multi-hanky entertainment that is as pretty and lavish as the book is plain. If the book is set in the harsh, impoverished atmosphere of rural Georgia, the movie unfolds in a cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland. ... Some parts of it are rapturous and stirring, others hugely improbable, and the film moves unpredictably from one mode to another. From another director, this might be fatally confusing, but Mr. Spielberg's showmanship is still with him. Although the combination of his sensibilities and Miss Walker's amounts to a colossal mismatch, Mr. Spielberg's Color Purple manages to have momentum, warmth and staying power all the same.
Variety found the film over-sentimental, writing, "there are some great scenes and great performances in The Color Purple, but it is not a great film. Steven Spielberg's turn at 'serious' film-making is marred in more than one place by overblown production that threatens to drown in its own emotions."
In addition, some critics alleged that the movie stereotyped black people in general and black men in particular, pointing to the fact that Spielberg, a white man, had directed a predominantly African American story.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone defended The Color Purple as "an excellent movie, and it was an attempt to deal with an issue that had been overlooked, and it wouldn't have been done if it hadn't been Spielberg. And it's not like everyone says, that he ruined the book. That's horseshit. Nobody was going to do the book. He made the book live again."
In 2004, Ebert included The Color Purple in his list of "Great Movies". He stated that "I can see its flaws more easily than when I named it the best film of 1985, but I can also understand why it moved me so deeply, and why the greatness of some films depends not on their perfection or logic, but on their heart."
The Color Purple was a success at the box office, staying in U.S. theaters for 21 weeks, and grossing over $142 million worldwide. In terms of box office income, it ranked as the #1 rated PG-13 film released in 1985, and #4 overall.
The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Goldberg and Best Supporting Actress for both Avery and Winfrey. It failed to win any of them, tying the record set by 1977's The Turning Point for the most Oscar nominations without a single win.
Meyjes was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 40th awards ceremony and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 38th awards ceremony.
Spielberg received his first Directors Guild of America Award at the 38th awards ceremony for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. He became the first director to win the award without even being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.