THE STORY – Torn apart from her sister and her children, Celie faces many hardships in life, including an abusive husband. With support from a sultry singer named Shug Avery, as well as her stand-her-ground stepdaughter, Celie ultimately finds extraordinary strength in the unbreakable bonds of a new kind of sisterhood.
THE CAST – Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey & Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
THE TEAM – Blitz Bazawule (Director) & Marcus Gardley (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 140 Minutes
Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Color Purple,” is a beloved work by many. It’s a literary achievement that spans forty years of an African-American woman’s life in the early 1900s. The story depicts the immense amount of horrors she survives, her strength, and the power of sisterhood. The novel was quickly adapted into a feature film in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover, where it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. In 2005, it was adapted into a Broadway musical, nominated for eleven Tony Awards with a Best Actress in a Musical win. Ten years later, the revival won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical. Now, in 2023, a film adaptation of the award-winning production is here, introducing a new generation to this story and reminding us of how powerful Walker’s words and characters are and why they continue to resonate today.
Taking many bases in the musical production, the film follows Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and later Fantasia Barrino in her feature film debut) from age 14 to 54. As a child, Celie is abused and impregnated by her father (Deon Cole) and forced to give up her children right after birth. But despite these horrible acts, she still finds joy in life with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey). But soon, Celie’s father breaks them up by marrying Celie off to Albert “Mister” Johnson (Colman Domingo), another cruel man who constantly beats Celie. Soon after, Celie’s father attempts to rape Nettie. In defiance, she runs to Celie and Mister, seeking refuge. Mister agrees but also tries to rape Nettie until she fights back. As a result, he kicks Nettie out, telling her never to return. The sisters are quickly and heartbreakingly torn apart but promise to keep in touch by writing letters. However, many years pass, and Celie never hears from Nettie. After decades, with no letter or sign that her sister is still alive, Celie is left on her own with no hope for a happy or meaningful life outside of the kindness of others.
This new version of “The Color Purple” is a piece of art that is all about the music. With the opening line of “Dear God” and a closing line of “Amen,” it is apparent that the story is not only one of sisterhood and resilience but also faith. And nothing brings faith and inner strength outward like music and song. The music of “The Color Purple” is rooted in the power one feels when they’re so inspired that they have no other option but to sing and dance. Therefore, the songs and musical numbers are some of the film’s most effective sequences, with fantastic choreography to accompany them. However, there are moments when it feels like the characters are being filmed on a stage, breaking the immersion into the story. This gives the impression that the characters aren’t living authentically in a world where they express themselves through song and dance, but rather just actors and dancers performing for a camera. This can be primarily considered a fault of the direction and cinematography.
“The Color Purple” is filled with fantastic performances across the board, but what holds the film down is the limiting of their movement within the frame. This intimate and intense story deals with harsh and dark subject matter, enough to make people feel uneasy and emotionally rattled. Therefore, the best moments are when the actors are allowed to act without any external measures affecting them. The additions of grand movement, swooping camera angles, and multiple cuts benefit specific numbers that are inherently flashy, like “Push the Button,” but for others, it undermines the grand power of the song and narrative moment. Additionally, director Blitz Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley decide to give Celie a visual imagination where some story elements occur in her mind. While this is an interesting creative avenue to get closer to a more introverted protagonist, this concept undermines Walker’s original intent with the material and the songs written for sequences. Since they now take place in an immigratory state, it is unclear to the audience if these narrative beats are emotions Celie is solely experiencing or mutual with other characters. As a result, most of these elements in Celie’s imagination don’t work, and they once again pull the audience out of the story as they are tonally different from the rest of the more serious, dramatic film.
The strongest element of the film are the performances. “The Color Purple” features, easily, one of the best film ensembles of the year, and leading that is Fantasia Barrino, who is simply fantastic in her turn as Celie. Returning to the role after playing Celie on Broadway in 2007, Barrino is able to portray her with the utmost respect, strength, and vulnerability that the character deserves and needs. Celie experiences hardship after hardship and is a challenging character to play as a result. Still, she always maintains a level of quiet hopefulness and goodness, with Barrino going deep to access that courage in spades. It’s impossible not to root for Celie and watch in admiration as she never allows her fire to be extinguished. The fact that this is Barrino’s first film role is astonishing, as it seems she has been turning in awards-worthy performances for years.
In addition, Taraji P. Henson brings much-needed light and energy to the glitzy jazz singer who has the genuine attention and affection of Mister Shug Avery, who is the personification of freedom and love. Her song, “Push the Button,” is one of the film’s highlights and where Henson channels her pure star power. Henson as Shug is a character-actor match made in heaven, further proving Henson is consistently turning in stellar performances. However, it’s Danielle Brooks as Sofia who brings the house down. Coming off of her Tony-nominated performance of the same character, Brooks is completely comfortable and electric in the role and knocks it out of the park scene after scene. It is a stunning tour de force from a performer who knows exactly how to translate this character from the stage to the big screen. Like Sofia, Brooks is a powerhouse and delivers a performance that will leave you both cheering and crying. Together, the three are simply magical and are supported by equally strong performances from Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins as his son Harpo, and H.E.R. as Harpo’s new wife, Squeak. Fresh off her star-making turn as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Halle Bailey is also delightful as Young Nettie and gets more time with the character with the addition of an original song.
Despite its directorial and narrative faults, “The Color Purple” is still a definitive crowd-pleaser. The stellar performances alone compensate for any weaknesses within the film’s direction and adaptation. More importantly, “The Color Purple” is a spiritual event that wisely uses its 140 minutes to take you on a vast journey of highs and lows with a cathartic ending that will leave you speechless. “The Color Purple” is an iconic story that has meant so much to so many people, and it’s apparent that every artist involved in making this new version loves and respects this story. Watching Celie, Shug, and Sofia support each other is a powerful triumph of women supporting other women. It may not be perfect, but the themes of female friendship, love, and forgiveness are palpable, which only further enforces why this story has been told again and again. “The Color Purple” may be timeless in its themes, but this adaptation simultaneously adds to and celebrates its legacy, which will undoubtedly inspire future generations.