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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'The Color Purple': A Beautiful, Heartfelt Musical Re-Telling of Alice Walker's Classic Novel

For some, the promise of a remake of The Color Purple billed as "A Bold New Take on the Beloved Classic" might pose a few questions. How would this new version be different from Alice Walker's novel or the 1985 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg? The answer is rather simple, as this new re-telling is based primarily on the stage version of Walker's novel, and is a full-fledged musical. It is a bit strange that the advertising for the film has sidestepped this aspect of the film, as it might blindside viewers who go into this expecting a true remake of the Spielberg film. That said, the film does have a lot to offer those who are more familiar with the novel or the original film adaptation, and those more familiar with the stage adaptation will be pleased by how well the musical numbers translate to the screen. Fans of the story that The Color Purple tells across all its iterations will undoubtedly find plenty to love about this "Bold New Take on the Beloved Classic", as will those who are being introduced to it for the first time.

In early 1900s Georgia, a young woman named Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as the younger version of the character, Fantasia Barrino as the older version) faces poverty, abuse, and other struggles throughout her life. She is married to an abusive, short-tempered man known primarily as Mister (Colman Domingo), and spends her days longing for a better life. When Mister's mistress, a sultry singer named Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) comes into town, Celie forms a connection with her, and begins to get the love and support she has so desperately needed over the years. This unexpected bond, as well as the other connections she makes over the years, gives Celie courage to stand up for herself and allows her to discover the immense strength that was inside her all along.

I was not familiar with director Blitz Bazawule going into this film, but I must say that I am impressed by his work here, especially with how he integrates the musical numbers into the film. Some moments are more in line with what you would see in a traditional musical, while others have an almost music video feel to them. The ones that fall into the latter category are particularly interesting, as they allow Bazawule to play with the visual landscape of the film, and to take some creative risks. At best, these moments are stunning, and enhance what we are seeing and feeling in that specific scene, and at worst, they feel a tad artificial and disrupt the flow of the film a little. To be fair, translating musical numbers from stage to screen is always a tough job, but despite a few quibbles here and there, it largely succeeds when it comes to the major numbers. A few standouts include the big opening number, Mysterious Ways, the sensual showstopper Push Da Button, and the empowering ballad I'm Here, which is one of the best parts of the whole film. Bazawule has an intriguing visual style, and it is so well-suited to both the film's story and the musical numbers. He definitely knows how to direct a musical, and I hope he gets the chance to make another one in the future.

As someone who read the Alice Walker novel in high school, and as someone who loves the 1985 film, I was most curious to see how faithful it is to either of these. I figured this would be more beholden to the stage version, and it is somewhat, but I would argue that this version is more faithful to the book than anything. The new version cuts several songs from the stage show, which is a little frustrating, but doesn't take away too much from the film's general momentum. Narratively, it mostly sticks to the book, with a few changes here and there to either embellish or streamline certain details. I will say that my biggest issue lies in the back half of the film, as the first half is so strong and fleshed out, while the rest is a bit rushed. It at least hits the important beats of the original story, but I kind of wished it would have taken a little more time to let certain moments sink in a little more at the very least. The true saving graces of the back half are the I'm Here number, and the finale, which is so beautifully re-contextualized for this version and ends everything on a powerful and uplifting note. Despite my issues with the second half, the film still manages to be a solid adaptation, and retains so much of what made the original a classic in the first place, while still feeling fresh and new.

When this project was first announced, I had a feeling that Cynthia Erivo was going to be cast as Celie. Given that she is an Academy Award nominee and had played the same role in the 2015 Broadway revival, it seemed like the obvious casting choice. However, the role ended up going to Fantasia Barrino, which was a welcome surprise for me. Barrino played the role of Celie in the original Broadway run, fresh off winning Season 3 of American Idol, so she is definitely up to the task here. Given that she has had her own struggles and hardships over the years, Barrino connects to the character of Celie on such a deep level, and we feel her emotions so strongly all throughout the film. We truly feel for her in the earlier moments of the film, and her moments of triumph are all the more heartwarming because of how she plays them. It is such a beautiful performance all the way through, and she truly is the heart and soul of the entire film.

The rest of the cast is equally tremendous, especially Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, and Corey Hawkins. Henson is so electric as Shug Avery, and she changes the temperature of the film every time she appears. She brims with confidence and her dynamic with Barrino is such a strength of the film as a whole. Henson is good in just about anything, but this might be one of my all-time favorite performances of hers. Brooks is perhaps the biggest standout of the supporting cast, as she captures the stubbornness and strong will of her character, Sofia, so perfectly. Brooks previously played the role on Broadway to much acclaim, and it is so clear to see why after seeing her here. She is an absolute force in this role, and I can see this being a performance that makes her star rise even higher than it already has. Domingo caps off a great year for himself by turning in an incendiary performance that makes the audience hate his character, Mister. Mister is the de facto antagonist of the film, and Domingo captures the anger and cruelty of the character so effortlessly. Hawkins is given a smaller role in comparison to most of the key supporting players, but he has a great presence that fits into the film so well. He is especially great in his scenes with Brooks, as he is an excellent foil for her. The ensemble as a whole is so incredible, and the way they work together truly highlights the film's messages of community and sisterhood.

This version of The Color Purple definitely lives up to the promise of being "A Bold New Take on the Beloved Classic", and is one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations of the past several years. It doesn't matter if you are more familiar with the original novel, the 1985 Spielberg film, the stage version, or if you are going into this film blind, this film has plenty for everyone. Its hopeful message and portrayal of one woman's journey to finding the love and strength within herself is so beautifully told, and could very well become a classic of its own with time. It is such an emotional ride that captures the struggles and celebrations of its main character so fully that it is hard not to be moved by so much of what the film accomplishes. It is one of the most beautiful films of the year, and is yet another great re-telling of Alice Walker's landmark novel.

Rating: 4/5

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