Banner image: Fantasia Barrino as Celie in The Color Purple. Photo credit: Eli Adé © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple has sold over five million copies globally. With Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation and a Broadway musical opening in 2005 (and winning a Tony Award in its 2015 revival), Walker’s story of struggle and resilience has already touched millions. Now, it’s Blitz Bazawule’s (The Burial of Kojo, Black Is King) turn at directing the eagerly anticipated movie adaptation of the musical.
The story follows Celie (Fantasia Barrino), an African American woman in rural Georgia during the early 1900s, across 40 years of her life. Facing many hardships at the hands of her father (Deon Cole), husband (Colman Domingo), and society as a whole, Celie goes on a long and painful journey of self-discovery. Yet, The Color Purple is ultimately a story of hope and a celebration of life.
Many will already be familiar with Celie’s tale and, as a remake, there’ll always be comparisons drawn with the original. The plot itself doesn’t diverge far from Spielberg’s version – however, the tone, style, and cinematography are completely different, as can be expected from a musical.
While perhaps less gritty at times than the 1985 adaptation, the musical film doesn’t shy away from the abuse Celie suffers, or themes of spirituality, racism, and sexism. With Spielberg, Quincy Jones (who wrote the 1985 score), and Oprah Winfrey (who played the original Sofia) all credited as producers, there are some nice nods to the 1985 movie throughout. For example, Whoopi Goldberg, who played Celie in 1985, makes a small cameo as a midwife.
Tackling hard-hitting topics, the film is difficult to watch at times, but there are enough funny moments to bring some emotional relief. The humour helps convey the full picture of Celie’s life – both her pain and happiness.
However, many would agree that it’s the film’s spectacular performances which really bring the story to life. After playing Celie on Broadway from 2007 to 2008, Fantasia shines in her debut leading movie role. It’s no surprise that she was nominated for a BAFTA Award considering the raw emotion and energy she invests in Celie.
Also nominated for a BAFTA, as well as an Oscar, is Danielle Brooks (Peacemaker, Orange Is the New Black) who gives an outstanding performance. Sure to be a crowd favourite, Brooks owns every scene she’s in as the outspoken and feisty Sofia – and her song ‘Hell No!’ is a memorable highlight.
Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Halle Bailey (The Little Mermaid), and Colman Domingo (Lincoln, Selma) also delivered stellar performances in their roles. Henson is an energetic and sultry Shug Avery; Bailey brings an innocence and sense of adventure to Celie’s sister, Nettie; and Domingo injects some humanity and humour into Celie’s abusive husband, Mister, so he doesn’t come across as too one-note.
Despite spanning 40 years, the plot never drags and the film keeps a punchy pace. If anything, some may find it a little fast at times as some character development feels skipped over – particularly the relationship between Celie and Shug.
Featuring beautiful scenery and immersive sets, the cinematography is well-considered and Bazawule makes use of natural light throughout. This gives a sense of hope, even in the darkest moments.
But, the film is arguably somewhat let down by its soundtrack, which is a little underwhelming at times. With a score by Kris Bowers (Green Book, King Richard), it’s a mix of African music, blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B, and features several new songs and original compositions, as well as tracks from the Broadway production and the 80’s film.
While catchy, the songs don’t necessarily link the action together or move the plot forward as you may expect from a musical, where the melodies should take centre stage. The tracks provide some respite from the troubling plot – though this can, at times, take us out of the story, as we break away for a song-and-dance moment. Musical lovers will probably be able to look past this, but others may find the musical numbers distracting, and the transitions a little clunky.
That said, the cast’s passion is clear and their vocals shine throughout. You can expect impressive costumes and big, ensemble dance numbers – you always know a fun musical moment is coming when construction tools make an appearance!
Despite any shortcomings, The Color Purple is a powerful retelling of a time-tested story and is impressive to see on the big screen. An emotional watch, this musical will have you tearing up at the horrific abuse Celie suffers, then cheering as she finds inner strength and empowerment.
With a focus on self-love and the importance of sisterhood, The Color Purple emphasises the hope and, ultimately, the love that was at the heart of Walker’s novel.
The Color Purple is currently showing in UK cinemas.
Are you planning to watch The Color Purple? Or have you seen it already? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.