THE COLOR PURPLE Was Thirty-Two Years Ago

It’s a significant film, but it doesn’t negate Elizabeth Banks’ point.

Yesterday, Elizabeth Banks gave an award acceptance speech to the group Women in Film, and in her larger point about the need for more female roles in Hollywood, she made some instantly controversial statements about Steven Spielberg. 

I went to 'Indiana Jones’ and ‘Jaws’ and every movie Steven Spielberg ever made, and by the way, he’s never made a movie with a female lead. Sorry, Steven. I don’t mean to call your ass out but it’s true.

Of course, Spielberg has made one hugely important film with a female lead: 1985's The Color Purple, starring Whoopi Goldberg. (We can debate The BFG and E.T. some other time, pedants.) The internet has been quick to jump on that fact, and it's an important one. Goldberg's performance is remarkable, and she deserves recognition for it. She deserves to be remembered for that role. I wish Elizabeth Banks had remembered Goldberg in her speech - because Goldberg deserves it, but also because it wouldn't give armies of Spielberg defenders ammunition to dismiss what Banks was trying to say about female representation in Hollywood.

Precision matters. It matters because facts are real and objective, and we spend too much time debating facts these days when they should be something we can prove instead of dispute. But precision also matters because if you make one imprecise statement, thousands of people on the internet will pounce on it rather than focusing on the worthier message behind that imprecision. Steven Spielberg is one of the most powerful producers and directors in Hollywood. He's made dozens of films. And within his own filmography, with the immense amount of power that he has, he has generated almost no female leads. That's worth discussing.

Of course Spielberg isn't the only filmmaker with this tendency - if he were, female representation would be in much better shape in Hollywood. And, listen, I love Spielberg. I'm sure Elizabeth Banks does, too. He's one of our greatest living filmmakers and he is by many accounts a nice guy, to boot. And yeah, he should be able to make whatever movies he wants to make. He's an artist, one who's provided us with hundreds of hours of beautiful entertainment, and he's earned that right. 

But there's something to be said about the quickness with which scores of people have been ready to attack Elizabeth Banks for the imprecision of her speech rather than examine what she's saying about our good ol' Uncle Steve's objectively poor track record with lead female roles. Yes, The Color Purple matters. Yes, Whoopi Goldberg matters. But that movie was made thirty-two years ago, and Steven Spielberg has directed over twenty films since then. Let's stop pretending its existence negates Banks' larger point. It just made her an easy target for those who don't want to hear a negative word about their beloved male director.