The Color Purple

The Color Purple

2023, PG-13, 140 min. Directed by Blitz Bazawule. Starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins, Colman Domingo, Halle Bailey, Ciara, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi.

REVIEWED By Alejandra Martinez, Fri., Dec. 22, 2023

Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple has lived several lives since its first publication in 1982: Aside from being an award-winning literary staple, it's become an Academy Award-nominated film from Steven Spielberg, and a 2005 Broadway musical smash with a Tony-winning revival in 2016. Now, the decades-spanning story of Celie (Mpasi), a 14-year-old Black girl who survives years of abuse and eventually discovers her power, has a new life yet again. In director Blitz Bazawule’s adaptation, combining elements from Marsha Norman's musical and the Spielberg version, this new take on The Color Purple finds a middle ground between the two. The result is a moving, hopeful, but oddly structured film. Thankfully, the powerful performances from the cast help this adaptation move past its weaknesses and lean into the story’s themes of hope and endurance through female friendship and solidarity.

The most powerful element of The Color Purple is its focus on female strength in the face of unbearable pain. Celie (Mpasi as a child and Barrino as an adult, both doing incredible work), despite her separation from her sister Nettie (Bailey/Ciara) and forced marriage to the abusive Albert "Mister" Johnson (Domingo), finds solidarity with the women in her life. There is the iconic, indomitable Sofia (Brooks), who blows into Celie’s world like a whirlwind when Mister’s son, Harpo (Hawkins), brings her home. Brooks, who won a Tony for the same role in the 2016 revival, is breathtaking, a grounded, uncompromising, and fierce force of nature that initially confuses Celie, but then wins her over. Equally, Henson is bold and tender as Shug Avery, a free-spirited jazz singer who jump-starts a life-changing sexual awakening in Celie.

Music was always a part of The Color Purple (especially the Broadway tunes by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray), and so the musical sequences here make sense. They are energetically shot and choreographed, driving the narrative forward. As in any great musical, director Blitz Bazawule understands that when emotions swell, music can be more effective than words at capturing a character’s truth.

Thankfully, these performances and songs carry the film through its structure, which is distinctly different from the 1985 script by Menno Meyjes. Some of the restructuring in Marcus Gardley's new script makes sense to make room for musical numbers or streamline the story, but it can take away from impactful sequences in the original. Take, for instance, the placement of “Miss Celie’s Blues,” composed for the 1985 film by Quincy Jones. When Shug serenades Celie, it makes her feel beautiful and seen for the first time, a pivotal, moving point in the story. In the original film, Shug performs the song at Harpo’s juke joint, giving Celie her flowers in front of the whole community. In this adaptation, the song comes into play later, and its presence is welcome but less impactful. We’ve already seen Shug and Celie come together romantically, and what should be a memorable start to their relationship feels like an afterthought. It’s a small change that felt unnecessary.

Ultimately, the new life in this adaptation of The Color Purple is still worth revisiting, with performances from a stacked ensemble that help the film rise above being a straightforward adaptation.

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The Color Purple, Blitz Bazawule, Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins, Colman Domingo, Halle Bailey, Ciara, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi

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