The Color Purple
The second movie based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes its cues from the Tony-winning Broadway musical adaptation, embracing hope amid its heartbreaking tale.
January 24, 2024
For most, there isn't much in Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple that screams for the musical spin. Broadway still came calling. On the page, this tale always featured a jazz and blues singer as a key character. When it initially reached the screen in 1985 with Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans) directing, it also worked in an anthem that earned an Oscar nomination and has been much-covered since; Quincy Jones composed the film's score and produced the movie. But if the idea of lavish song-and-dance numbers peppered throughout such a bleak account of incest, rape, domestic abuse, racism, injustice, violence and poverty feels like hitting a wrong note, claims otherwise keep springing. First arrived 2005's Tony-winning stage adaptation, then 2015's also-awarded revival. Now, joining the ranks of books that became movies, then musicals, then musical movies just like the new Mean Girls, a second feature brings Walker's story to cinemas — this time with belted-out ballads and toe-tapping tunes.
With each take, The Color Purple's narrative has predominantly remained the same as when it first hit bookshelves, crushing woe, infuriating prejudice and rampant inequity included. Musicals don't have to be cheery, but how does so much brutality give rise to anything but mournful songs? The answer here: by leaning into the rural Georgia-set tale's embrace of hope, resilience and self-discovery. Ghanaian director Blitz Bazawule follows up co-helming Beyoncé's Black Is King by heroing empowerment and emancipation in his version of The Color Purple — and while the film that results can't completely avoid an awkward tonal balance, it's easy to see the meaning behind its striving for a brighter outlook. When what its characters go through as Black women in America's south in the early 20th century is so unsparing, welcoming wherever light can pierce the gloom is a human reaction, and how Celie (American Idol-winner Fantasia Barrino in her feature film debut) copes.
Although the sun streams, there's little that's merry about The Color Purple's protagonist's existence when the latest movie begins, or afterwards. On her second pregnancy to her bullying father Alfonso (Deon Cole, Black-ish), who sees her as mere property, the teen Celie (fellow first-timer Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, who was a writer on Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies) knows that this baby will be snatched from her again. But at least she has her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey, The Little Mermaid) to dote on, cling to and protect — until she doesn't. Celie is traded to farmer Mister (Colman Domingo, Rustin) for a cow and a couple of eggs, after he asks for Nettie. The younger sibling soon comes knocking on the door after Celie is burdened with cooking, cleaning, mothering his existing kids and weathering more abuse; however, the sisters are forced apart when Mister still can't get what he wants.
Heartbreak is The Color Purple's baseline: over Celie's abhorrent treatment by her dad, and then by Mister; at two girls with nothing else to rely on being torn so cruelly from each other; and at the onslaught of pain that keeps streaming, and widely. With Sofia (Oscar-nominee Danielle Brooks, Peacemaker), the wife of Mister's son Harpo (Corey Hawkins, Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter), Celie meets someone who is unapologetic about her place in the world — even in such a harsh and discriminatory world — only for the xenophobic use of the law to cut her down. With aforementioned crooner Shug Avery (Taraji P Henson, Abbott Elementary), who Mister would prefer to have by his side, she finds more than a push towards self-confidence, a true confidant and friendship; alas, happiness in any form is so frequently fleeting.
This Marcus Gardley (I'm a Virgo)-penned The Color Purple might package its championing of persistence and sisterhood with emotion-dripping songs, but it still shares much with its big-screen predecessor beyond its plot. Many holdovers come via personnel. Spielberg and Jones return, both as producers. Oprah Winfrey does the same, swapping from playing Sofia in her acting debut the first time around, which earned her both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. Another of the original movie's key cast members pops up for a cameo appearance. Also a blatant commonality: that film iterations of this story continue to tamp down The Color Purple's queer romance. 'What About Love?', a duet between Celie and Shug, is a dreamy picture-stealer. As Shug helps Celie to finally value her own desires, Barrino and Henson make a glowing pair. There's passion in their rousing relationship — but if 2024 isn't the time to make their love more than a footnote, then when?
Alongside getting audiences yearning for more of Celie and Shug together, that standout tune epitomises a facet of the film that's evident from the very moment that anyone starts singing: this is a stagey production. When musical numbers are pitched as lively escapist fantasies, which isn't rare, Bazawule appears to be making the choice purposefully. Again, although it doesn't always go as smoothly as planned, the reasoning tracks. For Celie and Sofia in particular, finding ways to persevere through everything that they endure, and to retain or regain any sense of spirit, means confronting big emotions. And just as it does in a theatre rather than a cinema, The Color Purple as a musical goes big when those feelings are released through song. (The movie also gets overly enthusiastic with its editing, which proved the case when Jon Poll took on the same role on The Greatest Showman as well.)
Even when the exuberant tone doesn't land and emphasising the sets is clunky, Bazawule has compiled an exceptional cast. Barrino and Brooks reprise their turns from the stage, with considerable tasks following in Whoopi Goldberg (Harlem) and Oprah's footsteps — but their expressive performances, which make everything that courses through both Celie and Sofia ripple from the screen, are each rich, raw and resonant. Henson is entrancingly sultry and fierce as Shug, Bailey caring and determined as Nettie, Domingo monstrous but damaged as Mister and Hawkins accommodating as Harpo. Louis Gossett Jr (Kingdom Business) and Jon Batiste (an Academy Award-winner for Soul's score) also make an impression in small parts. This lineup of talent is reason enough to have The Color Purple flicker and echo as a movie musical. And when this reclamation of a grim tale shines brightest, it shines in the same way that Celie's life eventually does: through the right company.
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