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The Color Purple review — A classic tale is magically reimagined


Alice Walker’s seminal novel "The Color Purple" is a generational story engrained into the media knowledge of black folk from a very young age. The tale is familiar, young Celie grows up in a world full of men who beat and take advantage of her, filling her mind with the thoughts that she is too black, too poor, too ugly. For us it is a formative part of the culture, spawning both powerful taking points and hilarious memes. The experience of witnessing Celie’s journey is essential, and the poetic language of these characters plays like a sweet tune in our hearts, minds, and souls forevermore.

2023’s The Color Purple directed by Blitz Bazawule is a musical reimagining of Spielberg’s 1985 take on the story. Yes, a story rife with much pain and trauma is being retooled into a big-budget, studio musical, which may sound sticky in its conceit but is rather precedented: The Color Purple found success on Broadway twice — once in 2005 and a revival in 2015 — both highly lauded and awarded. The Color Purple as musical soars because the music gives an otherwise voiceless Celie a way to express herself, and such complex, turbulent emotions can be translated into melodic wonder.

From the opening moments of the much-anticipated remake you are clued in that this will be a much different visual world than the Spielberg original: a wide, swooping crane shot circles a man riding a horse from overhead. The camera whips around to follow the man on the horse strumming a tune on his guitar, which soon floats up to land on two girls in a tree playing a hand-clapping game and singing a tune. These are the hearts of our story, Celie and Nettie, two sisters who have nothing but each other.

Young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mbasi) in particular receives the brunt of their father’s abuse. She has been raped and bore two of his children, which are then forcefully taken from her and given to other families to be raised. Celie is married off to Mister (an always excellent Coleman Domingo) and traded for livestock. Mister forbids Celie and Nettie to see each other, forcing Celie into decades of loneliness where she grows silent (and into Fantasia Barrino), a victim forced to take care of Mister’s home.

Danielle Brooks brings a much-needed jolt of energy into the film with her appearance, commanding every inch of the screen with her fearless performance as Sofia. Her musical number is strong but suffers due to blocking and choreography that are overall funny but fail to uplift the music. Her strongest and most heartbreaking moments come later in the film, so incredibly moving without saying a word. Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery is a highlight and impressed me greatly. She balances comedy, and sexuality, and serves as a genuine harbinger of light. Fantasia Barrino as Celie is a quiet, subtle performance. There is a surprising amount of restraint in her portrayal, many of her complexities lie in the nuance of her expression: the way she flinches at Mister’s raised fist, the way she takes in information, how she always watches silently, yet clearly a fragmented soul —then she opens her mouth to sing, a voice that connects directly the roots of our being.

The performers are the beating heart of this film. However, Bazawule’s vision for this interpretation of the story left me staggered. Alice Walker’s original novel is a black feminist manifesto — it amalgamates anger, pain, depression, and isolation and finds the beauty that can lie within faith despite hardship. The joy blooms from overcoming adversity, and from the personal relationships that Celie has founded along the way. Bazawule chooses to focus on joy and magical realism as his entry point into the story, an understandable alternative to the years of black trauma portrayed on screen over the years, but never feeling like it fully delves into the complexities of the experiences. The film was shot digitally and has an overly-glossy polish which makes everything feel modern. There is a frequency of shots featuring characters in front of a window with streams of light basking in behind them causing them to be in silhouette, their faces cast in shadows. This happens many times, with whole sequences of dialogue occurring. The blocking for musical numbers, while a spectacle, does very little to service the music. The erratic editing in powerful solo numbers oftentimes looks like it’s switching between shots of coverage when instead the strength could come from locking down the camera and letting the performer do their work. The direction, cinematography, and lighting all serve to evoke emotion — supplementing any hint of nuance or subtlety.

There is an attempt to be adventurous in its adaptation, which is bold but not at all a home run. It teases with hints of additional material from Walker’s original novel, which never feels fully committed to. The 1985 film was critiqued for the watering down of its queer storyline between Celie and Shug Avery, Spielberg has gone on record for saying he regrets softening down their romance to only a kiss. The 2023 film, while more explicit in making clear their love as a core storyline, is sadly not much braver in its portrayal of the two as partners. There is a decision to keep only about half of the songs from the musical and to replace the other half with original tunes written for the film, which be fine if the songs did anything to move the plot forward or further develop the characters.

Movie musicals of the current decade have proven to be flops with films like Dear Evan Hansen and In The Heights tanking critically and commercially. The Color Purple falls into similar trappings as many of its predecessors. What becomes clear is a misunderstanding of musical theatre as an art form. The musical theater formula goes like this: the song is an eruption of emotion — when the words to speak don’t suffice, a character has no option but to sing. When singing isn’t enough, they dance. And so on, and so on.

Inarguably the most popular song from the musical is “I’m Here”, a show-stopping 11 o’clock number that has proven time and time again it works — it won LaChanze the Tony, it won Cynthia Erivo the Tony, and Fantasia’s rendition as an original cast replacement lives on in musical theatre glory. “I’m Here” is the ultimate emotional display of reflection, self-realization, and reclamation, and comes in the musical when Shug Avery finally decides to leave Celie romantically. It’s the final stepping stone in her long journey of realized self-love, the acceptance of herself as enough. The film, by diluting aspects of the Celie-Shug storyline, completely robs the number of a strong inciting incident, leaving a beautifully performed and resonant musical number that stems from nothing and is not able to go anywhere.

Here lies the problem: incredible source material and an incredible cast that are never able to fully shine. What’s left is music that never feels like it’s in service of the story, completely disconnected, like two trains running in opposite directions — which begs the question: why? There’s no use denying that there is still power emulating from the film, but the knowledge that there was so much unfulfilled potential leaves you yearning for more. Nevertheless, it is hard not to recommend the film. The strength of the players and the story of three Black women finding their voice despite all odds is one of strength and proves that, despite a few flaws, it is still here -- and here to stay.

The Color Purple is in theatres December 25th.


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