2017 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival — Purple Dreams

Purple Dreams was a good film. I was entertained and inspired. At a festival that relies heavily on big issue pictures, a little bit of uplift goes a long way. A lot of uplift goes all the way to the moon. 

If one senses that the film itself is not in the same “straight superior” class as the show it documents, perhaps it doesn’t need to be. The story is strong enough to carry the day, and the choir that was preached to at the Durham festival responded with a standing ovation.

Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte is granted permission to be the first high school in the country to perform The Color Purple. Director Joanne Hock follows the students through auditions, rehearsals, setbacks and successes. Four students in particular are profiled, and Purple Dreams uses their stories to illustrate the importance of arts education, particularly for “at risk” students.

If you sense some restraint in my praise, it is only motivated by this: I wondered if the audience clapped more for the idea of the film than its execution. Personally, I wanted to see more than the occasional glimpse of the hard lives the movie told us were being overcome. Prior to auditions we get one shot of a student living in a hotel. Post-production we get about thirty seconds of a mom talking about how she raised money to send her son to a competition.

It doesn’t detract from the film’s accomplishment that the people depicted in the film were all more engaging and gripping during the Q&A than they were in the documentary, but it does highlight some curious directorial choices. We get more generic theater production shots — the cast being worn out, the cast talking about the importance of hard work, the star looking out at the audience before the curtain — and not as much in depth examination of how participation in the arts affected the participants.

Neither do we get a full sense of the production itself. Hock told audiences at Full Frame that she “never saw” the show because she was busy filming the participants. That seems an odd confession given the film’s marketing hook that the issues surrounding The Color Purple are topical and timely. The young people are incredibly articulate when asked probing questions. A young, male actor struggles with how to make a misogynist wife-beater anything other than a monster. A woman of faith wonders if she can engage in the lesbian kiss the show calls for. In these moments, Purple Dreams shows rather than tells, and it is at its best.

Full Frame always includes a hefty slate of films on serious topics. This year alone there were at least three films on Syrian refugees. Whose Streets? marked the third Ferguson documentary I’ve seen in the last two months. Those are important stories, but after a steady diet of them, one needs a little hope and inspiration to keep from sliding into the slough of despair.

The best part of Purple Dreams was the way it underscored the connections between passion and excellence. The minute you say “I can’t,” says the demanding but loving theater director, there is someone behind you saying, “I can.” All of us have more than enough reasons to quit, give up, fail. When one of us pushes through adversity and does something great, it can inspire us. When that achievement is created through community, mutual support, and commitment, it can challenge us to see members of that community through new eyes.

Did I want a film that profiled any one (or more) of these teens in more depth? Sure. But I was grateful for the glimpses I got. It is truly amazing what we can achieve with the right teachers, the right opportunities, and the crazy courage to pursue that which brings us joy.


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