The Color Purple
At the age of fourteen, Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) has already had two children taken from her by the father (Deon Cole) who impregnated her and been given to Mister ("Rustin's" Colman Domingo), who was after her prettier sister Nettie ("The Little Mermaid's" Halle Bailey), in a marriage that is equivalent to indentured servitude. Mister, who tries to rape Nettie in his and Celie’s home, drives Nettie away and hides her letters to her sister for decades. But two women, Celie’s (Fantasia Barrino, 'American Idol's' Season Three winner reprising her Broadway role) daughter-in-law Sofia (Danielle Brooks, TV's 'Orange Is the New Black,' reprising her Broadway role) and her husband’s sometime lover, blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), awaken her to “The Color Purple.”
Laura's Review: B+
The story of a united sisterhood rising up against patriarchal and racial oppression began as a 1982 novel by Alice Walker which became a film by Steven Spielberg three years later. In 2005, Marsha Norman turned it into a Broadway musical which has now been adapted after almost another twenty years back into a film by writer Marcus Gardley (TV's 'My America,' 'The Chi') and Ghanaian director Blitz Bazawule (Beyonce’s ‘Black is King’). After all these years, not only is it a story still worth telling, but new voices have reinterpreted the material, making it more of a celebration if sanding some of its edges off.
The film opens in 1909 along a Georgia coast reminiscent of the South Carolina landscape of “Daughters in the Dust” set seven years earlier, the young pregnant Celie and her sister Nettie lifting their voices in ‘Mysterious Ways.’ After a cameoing Whoopi Goldberg, the original film’s Celie, delivers Celie’s son, the sisters can only hope those ways come into play when the baby is ‘given to God.’ In an ingenious bit of foreshadowing, we see a Shug Avery photo session shake as it turns into the photo on Mister’s nightstand, jumping with the force of a rough ‘honeymoon’ bed.
Eight years later, Barrino’s taken over the role of Celie and one of Mister’s three children, Harpo (Corey Hawkins, "In the Heights"), has come to build a roadhouse on land from his granddad (Louis Gossett Jr.), much to his dad’s chagrin. He’s also brought his woman, a take-no-prisoners Sofia, who marches into Mister’s supposedly men’s only saloon and lays down her law. Celie, downtrodden from years of abuse, advises Harpo to beat her, as that is all she knows, but the two women eventually forge an understanding and Celie hesitantly begins to see things from a new perspective.
That perspective grows by leaps and bounds five years later with the arrival of Shug, who shows up drunk yet is treated like a queen by Mister, shocking Celie when she witnesses the man cook and serve the woman breakfast in bed. When Shug throws it back out into the hall, Celie prepares her something better, and Shug will take Celie under her wing, teaching her about life’s pleasures and reconnecting her with Nettie.
There’s a lot more to come, like Sofia’s replacement with Squeak (Gabriella Wilson 'H.E.R.') and degradation at the hands of the mayor’s wife, Miss Millie (Elizabeth Marvel, 2010's "True Grit," "Swallow"), Shug’s reconnection with her disapproving father, Reverend Avery (David Alan Grier) and one big ‘Kumbaya’ climactic family reunion. But it’s also lost a number of aspects of the original film, Celie’s suffering muted, her sexual awakening with Shug merely hinted at.
Still, this is a far better film than its trailer hinted at. Bazawule’s shepherded a beautiful production, musical numbers with their color coordinated costumes rousingly choreographed, Dan Laustsen's ("John Wick: Chapter 4) cinematography shot through with light. In her feature film debut, Barrino gives us a different Celie from Whoopi Goldberg’s shy, grinning version, hers more resigned with a native intelligence waiting to be tapped. Brooks, who was Tony nominated, reprises Sofia with force, her instigation to pull out of the shock of horrific treatment Celie’s first verbal jab at Mister, beautifully timed reactive acting. And if Taraji doesn’t quite project the warmth of Margaret Avery’s original, she brings color to Celie’s world with her red sequins and the color purple. And she can sing!
This “Color Purple” won’t replace the Spielberg version, but the two films should coexist, each informing and reflecting on the other.
Robin's Review: B+
Celie (Fantasia Barrino) has lived a tough life. She was given away by her father to a brute of a man, Mister (Colman Domingo). She lived with Mister’s abuse and beatings after being torn away from her beloved sister, Nettie (Ciara). She meets a ray of hope in Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), an independent woman who will influence Celie in amazing ways in “The Color Purple”
Looking back at old reviews of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, one said that the film was less hard-hitting than the novel, but hardly sugar-coating it. Ghana director Blitz Bazawule, remaking Walker’s novel a second time on the big screen, does, in a way, sugar-coat his adaptation.
Celie and Nettie live with their father in a none too healthy or happy environment. But, even that “stability” disappears when Celie is given away to the cruel Mister, where she must endure violence, brutality and rape. That harsh existence is given hope with the arrival in town of Shug Avery. The dynamic performer will change Celie’s life in many ways.
This update to the Walker story is far less violent and dark than the ’85 version where the violence is more explicit and disturbing. Here, Bazawule makes the story into a musical and does so with very masculine dance numbers that deal with life’s futility as much as its hope. The music moves from vibrant and loud in the first half to more thoughtful and reflective in the second. I am not good with music in movies but there are some visually and audibly exciting numbers.
This is not a remake of an earlier, famous film. Instead, it is its own interpretation of Alice Walker’s gripping novel and stands separate and equal. That says a lot.
Warner Brothers releases "The Color Purple" in theaters on 12/25/23.