In honour of Black History Month, Dell On Movies is hosting a blogathon celebrating black excellence in film. Now if you don’t know what a blogathon is, it’s basically a bunch of bloggers creating posts around a specific subject during a specific period. To read up more on this Blogathon, click here. For this blogathon you could either choose a particular performance from a black actor and describe why you love it or comment on a particular actor’s body of work; I chose the former. Today it’s the turn of Whoopi Goldberg to receive my praise.
I had always considered Goldberg to be purely a comedic actress. Several of my weekends were spent enjoying her various comedic works from Sister Act to Theodore Rex to Eddie to The Associate (which is still one of my favourites). She was a regular on the Saturday afternoon or Saturday night movie features on local TV. I had seen her prove her range with movies like Sarafina and Ghosts of Mississippi but for the most part she remained that funny, slick lady who had raised me one Saturday at a time. Now I hadn’t seen The Colour Purple so I didn’t really know the full capacity of Goldberg’s acting skill.
I still remember the first time I watched The Colour Purple. It’s a movie made in the 80’s so it had that obligatory opening credits scene that listed the members of the main cast. I didn’t know anything about this movie except that it was a classic; and I was quite surprised to see Goldberg’s name, even more so to see the “And Introducing” tag before her name. Now from my many years (particularly Saturdays) of watching Goldberg, I was expecting to see her in a lighthearted role but what I got blew me away.
The Colour Purple follows the life of Celie – a seemingly ordinary African-American girl turned woman, living in rural Georgia during the early 1900’s. When we first meet Celie, she’s fourteen and portrayed by Desreta Jackson who could easily have been the topic of this post. Her acting is sensational and truly deserves praise. As Celie enters her early twenties, Goldberg steps into the role and delivers an acting master class. Celie is a character who’s endured much pain in her life. As a child her father repeatedly raped her, leading to two incestuous children. Her father would later – there’s no other way to say this – sell her to a widowed farmer known only as ‘Mister’, who would continue the legacy of abuse and rape that Celie’s father had begun. The abuse and sexual assault is not the worst thing these two vile men do to Celie. They cause Celie to lose her sister – Nettie – who is the only person Celie believes loves her. Celie’s story is one of unbearable compromise and survival.
When I first watched this movie, I assumed Goldberg was in her late adolescence of early twenties just because of her youthful appearance and the fact that this was her breakout role. It turns out that Goldberg was actually nearing her thirties when she filmed this movie. This makes her performance all the more impressive. Celie is a character robbed of her childhood. She’s sold into marriage at the age of sixteen and forced into managing Mister’s home and his three children. This essentially makes Celie a mother of five before she makes it through her adolescence. She now finds herself in a situation where she has the responsibilities of a woman ten years her senior but without the corresponding experience or development to match that. This leaves her in a perpetual state of limbo – never truly having left childhood but somehow knee-deep in the complexity of adulthood.
This comes across beautifully in the way Goldberg approaches her portrayal of the character. There’s an ever-present spirit of childlike wonder in Celie. There’s a light in her eyes and glimmers of joy in her smile that perfectly encapsulate this dual sense of identity that she has. Her eyes also hold great sorrow and you can feel the burden of her suffering whenever she frowns or looks at Mister. This is a wonderfully layered performance. Goldberg’s performance reminds me a lot of a weeping willow. Weeping willows trunks are flexible and bend in response to strong winds. It can be seen as a sign of submission but I prefer to see it as a sign of strength. The willow survives. The wind will eventually die down but the willow will remain long after. That’s the best way to describe Celie. She submits to the demands of Mister but she never loses herself. Her trunk is bent out of shape but her roots remain strong. Goldberg embodies this duplicity of strength through fragility with the expertise of a seasoned Hollywood veteran.
This movie takes place over twenty-six years in Celie’s life with Goldberg portraying at least twenty of these. Now a huge round of applause needs to be given to this film’s make-up and wardrobe team and, of course, director – Steven Spielberg. They do amazing work with hair colouring and creating an aged look for several of the characters. But hair colouring and adding wrinkles isn’t enough to sell the look of the character, the actor needs to do their share too. It’s evident that Goldberg was mindful of the ways people’s mannerisms change as they age. There’s a clear difference between the youthful spring and vibrance Celie has in her twenties; the steady and thoughtful grace in her thirties and the near-arthritic gait she shows near the end of the film. There’s clear progression and this all helps you buy into the idea of the character.
Although this film was Whoopi Goldberg’s second appearance in film, I think it’s fair to call it the true beginning of her career. She puts in a performance with the composure, passion and skill that often takes years to master. She delights, entertains, inspires tears and eventually feelings of pure joy. Goldberg will always be that funny, slick lady that babysat me on countless Saturdays but after watching this movie, it’s clear that she has to be more too. Like taking a step back while viewing a great piece of art and realising that there’s a grander picture in front of you that you were completely oblivious to.