A new musical film version of Alice Walker’s classic 1982 novel is “a big brash spectacle” that leans into the hope and triumph of its heroine.
The Color Purple is a big, brash spectacle, an extravaganza blending the styles of Broadway musicals, Hollywood studio movies and music videos, with a mix of gospel, pop, blues and ballads, all of that coming together smoothly in one exuberant film. Exuberance is an odd choice for the story of a woman abused by her father and husband, and cruelly separated from her sister and her children. But this new iteration – based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the successful Broadway musical – leans into the hope and triumph of its heroine, Celie.
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In fact, hope and triumph have been the filmmakers’ and cast’s main talking points in the runup to its release. “It was my goal to bring more levity to the story, while not shying away from the more difficult moments,” the screenwriter, Marcus Gardley, says in the production notes, where one of its stars, Taraji P Henson, says, “We’re tapping into the joy”. They may have overcorrected. The film downplays the depth of Celie’s tragedies as she goes from a girl in 1909 through the 1940s in a racist US South. This Color Purple works best as a complement to Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, with Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, which captures all the drama the new movie lacks. But on its own terms, the latest version is a joy to watch in all its crowd-pleasing boldness.
Halle Bailey is charismatic as Nettie, just as she was in The Little Mermaid
The director, Blitz Bazawule, a musician and filmmaker, announces his mashup of styles from the start. Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) is 14 and pregnant with her father’s child, the second one he will soon give away for adoption. She and her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey), are sitting in a tree singing, but almost instantly the entire screen explodes into song. Against the dusty backdrop of a small country town, men and women in bright colours sing a gospel song, and dance their way into church. Bazawule is a co-director of Beyonce’s Black is King filmed album, and there are echoes of her videos in the choreography and choruses of women here. The start and end of the film are rousing in the manner of Broadway opening and closing numbers, and the film never goes too long without a song backed by lush orchestrations. But there is also kinetic camerawork that follows the actors, and enough overhead shots so that it seems Bazawule is intent on proving that he’s making a movie, not filming a stage show.
In her first film, Mpasi pulls off the difficult job of making Celie both diffident and a vibrant character. When she sees the child her father has given away, she sings a bluesy song called She Be Mine and the film moves into one of several fantasy sequences. Behind her, we see prisoners at hard labour, an image a bit too on the nose but accurate for her situation. The fantasies are hit or miss – a later scene of the older Celie dancing on top of a spinning record just seems silly – but this one works. Soon she is married off to a brute called Mister, who treats her as less than a servant, and who is brought to life by Colman Domingo not as pure evil but as a credible monster of selfishness. Bailey is charismatic as Nettie, just as she was in The Little Mermaid. She sings and co-wrote one of the film’s original pop songs, Keep It Movin’, an interlude in which she tries to convince Celie to have fun, not just be subservient to Mister.
When the story jumps ahead eight years, Fantasia Barrino takes over as Celie, the role she played in one of the two Broadway productions. In the first stretch, she is merely subdued, without revealing the cost of Celie’s submission. But the songs and the performance get stronger as Celie’s sense of her own worth grows, and Barrino’s powerful singing voice takes over by the end.
The Color Purple
Director: Blitz Bazawule
Cast: Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Halle Bailey, Fantasia Barrino, Corey Hawkins
Run time: 2hr 34m
Henson slips easily into the role of the free-spirited singer Shug Avery, Mister’s occasional lover and for a time Celie’s as well. In a red sequined dress and a red feather in her hair, Shug sings in a juke joint run by Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins). And a nod to old Hollywood adds a bit of glamour when Celie and Shug go to a movie and disappear into a movie of their own, a Fred-and-Ginger style Art Deco fantasy in which they walk down twin staircases and sing a ballad together about love and kindness. In the reality of the movie theatre, they kiss and wake up together the next morning, a discreet way to acknowledge the relationship.
Celie learns to stand up for herself thanks to a strong sisterhood around her. No one in that sisterhood is stronger than Harpo’s no-nonsense wife, Sophia, played with intensity and humour by Danielle Brooks in a performance so spectacular she would run away with the film if she had more scenes. Sophia is a perfectly chiselled supporting character, played by Oprah Winfrey in the first film. (Oprah and Spielberg are producers of this one, lending it a seal of approval.) It is also the juiciest role, as Sophia sings Hell, No! after Harpo dares to hit her, and she is joined by a chorus of defiant women singing along. Brooks makes the absolute most of the part, creating an emotional reality beneath the fierceness here and later when a racist couple causes Sophia’s life to fall apart.
“Everything and everybody wants to be loved,” Shug tells Celie, whose lack of love drives the narrative. That need seems true for the film as well. Straight through to the big finish with a spiritual song and a warm family reunion, The Color Purple is shameless in its wish to be loved by audiences. That may be calculated, but the strategy works in this vivid, alternate take on a classic story.
The Color Purple is released on 25 December in the US, and on 26 January 2024 in the UK.
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