‘The Color Purple’ Review: Musical Reimagining Receives Royal Treatment

Aaron Neuwirth reviews The Color Purple, a vibrant and joyous adaptation of the stage muscial take on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
User Rating: 8

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, The Color Purple, tells an often-harrowing story of the life-long struggles of a Black woman living in the South in the early 1900s. There’s a sense of uplift to be found in the way we learn about the different people and eventually see developments that counter the drama, but laying out the various aspects of this story feels daunting when looking for entertainment. Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation was a notable project for the famed director when looking to break away from his comfort zone to deliver something more adult for his audience. It was met with strong reviews and many Oscar nominations, though even with all his notable collaborators, one wonders what having a different (Black) voice in the director’s seat may have offered for the production. Now, we have a cinematic adaptation of the hit stage musical, which also brings in elements from the novel and the film. The results feel special, as this is a crowd-pleasing bit of joy that balances Black trauma with the visible strength of these characters. Plus, it’s bolstered by excellent performances and a terrific handle on presenting its various choreographed numbers.

Without getting too far into the saddening details that set up this story, we are mainly following Celie (Phlyicia Pearl Mpasi as a child, Fantasia Barrino as an adult), who has been forced to give up her babies and eventually pushed into a marriage with the nefarious farmer Albert “Mister” Johnson (Colman Domingo), who abuses her. Separated from her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey), Celie lives a tough life tending to Mister’s needs. However, some forms of relief come by way of the tough-minded Sofia (Danielle Brooks), who marries Mister’s son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins), as well as the blues singer Shug (Taraji P. Henson), Mister’s long-time Mistress who does not care for the way he mistreats his wife. Through all this time, Celie’s resolve never to break, no matter how much she is beaten down, keeps her going.

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I have not seen the original stage musical, but I’m well aware of the film and am familiar enough with Walker’s novel to know it must have been quite the challenge to determine what elements to keep, what to remove, and where things could be amplified by way of elaborately choreographed musical performances. While I’ve merely mentioned abuse, this story contains violent beatings, sexual assault, and other uncomfortable elements that may merely be suggested on screen but feel clear enough when considering the different characters in this story. I’m making this clear, as I think it’s a great credit to screenwriter Marcus Gardley and director Blitz Bazawule for reaching the proper determinations as far as just how much this film needed to revel in the darkness and yet still aim to put up a feature fit for a family audience to see on Christmas (or whenever).

The key to this is presentation. At a time when the direction of movie musicals feels like a shaky prospect depending on who’s in charge, I was delighted to watch The Color Purple and feel as though I was seeing all the work that went into the various musical numbers being properly represented on screen. If anything, there were fewer songs than I expected, but the effort put in by the actors, the supporting dancers, and everyone in the production served as more than just a proof of concept. Watching wide shots of areas, as they were filled with colorful renditions of the different songs on the soundtrack, did well to examine the emotions going through the characters, often serving as counters to the drama being pushed their way.

Performance-wise, in addition to having a largely theatrically-trained cast that can very much sing, there’s a real slew of talent on display when it comes to seeing who represents these memorable characters. Chief among them would include Danielle Brooks as the assertive Sofia and Taraji P. Henson as singer Shug. Both are big personalities who easily fill the air with a sense of charisma that works to counter the dourer points of the story, and seeing them face their own drama equally plays to great effect. On the subtler side is Corey Hawkins’ Harpo, who plays a weaker character by design. We must see him make the most out of the more muted moments, which does well to inform the connections shared between this cast, no matter how antagonistic some may be.

Looking at the main characters, Fantasia already has a history playing Celie (as does Brooks, for that matter), and having her reprise the role over a decade later only seems to solidify the quiet strength she brings as a character so put-upon and yet full-hearted when it comes to the way she embraces new discoveries, relationships, or thoughts of Nettie with a true sense of wonder. On the opposite end, in terms of our emotional regard, Domingo’s dominating presence as Mister is effectively cruel but never heavy-handed within the realm of this story. You may hate his behavior, but the film captivates you when he’s on screen, no differently than any of the other principals.

Of course, examining why Mister is as awful as he is, let alone where all the various evil behaviors come from, speaks to the more intriguing side of this story. It’s a post-slavery environment, and the film focuses on almost exclusively Black areas. Yet, we have to watch so much harm taking place between the members of this cast, in addition to whatever outside factors affect them. While not every character is given an extra layer, we see enough from those who truly matter to recognize one of the oldest sayings shining through here – “hurt people hurt people.”

Fortunately, even in a stylized film like this, The Color Purple doesn’t make things easy on some of its characters. That may be troubling to see with some compared to others. Still, the repercussions allow for a changing of dynamics that let the expansive nature of this story evolve appropriately.

Now, being the latest adaptation of this novel and having other areas to pull from, looking at crucial sequences or how director Bazawule puts different ideas for the film on display means comparing and contrasting to some degree. There’s an authenticity that comes from people behind the camera with a cultural familiarity allowing for a kind of texture that simply can’t be done by others. At the same time, Spielberg, one of the greatest working directors, certainly knows how to excel at sequences rooted in charged emotions that benefit from how his eye can capture certain moments.

Perhaps all that means this version feels more honest when dealing with the deeply felt themes concerning race, identity, masculinity, and even sexuality. Does that also suggest the level of sentimentality is lessened? Not so much for a musical, as characters present their feelings in such a broad and literal way in this format. With that said, being its own film while combing aspects of the other versions means, as I mentioned, making a lot of choices as far as what areas may be sanded down compared to the novel’s impact or how much it may lean on raising up those pushed to their lowest point.

Whatever the case, I can respect the choice to deliver a story that very much wants to celebrate strong Black women of all different types, even as it comes down hard on domineering Black men. Naturally, this is a story focused on these characters, as opposed to being representative of all, so finding ways to present challenging personas while maintaining a level of entertainment for audiences speaks to its success.

In the realm of vibrant musicals released around the holidays, sure, The Color Purple has a higher intensity than many, given how rooted it is in real-world issues. However, that doesn’t make it any less of a substantial accomplishment. There’s plenty to take away from this adaptation that starts with the performances and most certainly includes the movie’s ability to get at the audiences’ emotions for multiple reasons. There’s tragedy to behold here, as well as joy. Plenty of drama unfolds, but the story is not without a sense of humor. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s all well worth it, and the gratifying journey to get there speaks to why it remains important to always stop and enjoy those purple fields when you see them.

The Color Purple opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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