The New The Color Purple Finds Its Own Rhythm

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Written By Pinang Driod

Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Color Purple, was a serious-minded prestige drama. The film simplified the story but faithfully rendered the book’s emotional weight through Spielberg’s vibrant direction, Quincy Jones’s sweeping score, and a strong ensemble cast. The movie became a classic that, despite notoriously failing to win any of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, made more than five times its budget at the box office, inspired a Tony-winning Broadway musical, and made stars of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

That’s a high bar for the new The Color Purple, in theaters today, to clear. Good thing, then, that the film aims for a slightly different goal: As an adaptation of the stage show, it further streamlines Walker’s prose in favor of illustrating sentimental intensity through spectacle. That may sound counterintuitive; movie musicals have recently been vehicles for pure whimsy or, well, whatever you want to call Cats. With The Color Purple, however, the medium is a good match for the heroine’s interiority, producing a sensual and textured take on the material. This new version—directed by Blitz Bazawule and produced by Spielberg, Jones, and Winfrey—works well as a companion piece to the 1985 drama while, for the most part, standing alone as its own tear-jerking, exultant epic.

As with the previous take on The Color Purple, the story focuses primarily on the tough coming-of-age of a young woman named Celie (played as a teenager by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and as an adult by Fantasia Barrino, reprising the role after starring in the musical). Growing up in Georgia, in the 1900s, Celie is repeatedly raped by the man she understands to be her father, delivering children he snatches away shortly after their births. Though she draws strength from her bond with her sister, Nettie (The Little Mermaid’s Halle Bailey), the two are separated after Celie is married off to an abusive husband she calls “Mister” (Colman Domingo). The film then follows Celie in the decades afterward as she attempts to find Nettie and build an identity of her own. Along the way, she finds inspiration from the women around her, including the vivacious blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) and Mister’s headstrong daughter-in-law, Sofia (Danielle Brooks).

Given how passive she appears to be—often hiding from Mister, speaking only when spoken to—Celie can be a tricky protagonist to follow, especially for a musical. But Bazawule makes the clever call to depict what’s going on in Celie’s mind as much as possible, through bold use of color and flamboyant flourishes of magical realism. Her scenes with Nettie tend to be lit with a warm, golden glow. Mirrors and windows serve as the film’s literal portals into her imagination, helping to bring her thoughts to life. In the most exuberant song-and-dance numbers, the camera is rarely static, taking in the spirited choreography as if viewing the dancers through Celie’s eyes: with awe and wonder and a desperate need to absorb every ounce of pleasure their steps bring. Such sequences lend the otherwise grim story a crucial buoyancy and underline why The Color Purple has endured as a cultural sensation. Celie’s tale isn’t merely about overcoming tragedy; it’s also a testament to her sense of joy in spite of enduring grief, as well as to her capacity for envisioning a better future for herself and those she loves.

That love comes across most stunningly in Celie’s scenes with Shug, as her crush on the songstress blossoms into a devotion that gives her, well, voice. Having directed Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King, Bazawule has proved himself adept at creating grand but elegant tableaus, and here, he elevates some of The Color Purple’s most delicate tunes into gorgeous fantasy sequences, lending Celie and Shug’s relationship the kind of substance the 1985 film underplayed. When Celie touches Shug for the first time, the set morphs into a massive gramophone, and Celie sings to her idol as the floor, now a giant vinyl stage, steadily spins. When they share a kiss at the end of a duet, the black-and-white backdrop slowly gives way to full color.

The film does struggle, however, with a familiar movie-musical problem: pacing. Bazawule’s eye for delivering what’s most visually impressive doesn’t make up for the uneven storytelling and somewhat awkward tonal shifts from Celie’s bleak life to her passionate inner thoughts. And with decades’ worth of narrative to pack in, the movie tends to gloss over plot points. Most of Mister’s children, Celie’s stepchildren, disappear as quickly as they’re introduced. Mister’s redemption in the final act feels like an abrupt, convenient shift. And Sofia’s traumatic years in prison—after an incident with a racist white woman—get wrapped up in a handful of brief scenes. Much of this abbreviation may be faithful to the musical, but in the film adaptation, the thin treatment of some characters becomes only more apparent.

Still, The Color Purple’s bumpier moments don’t dampen the cast’s committed performances. Brooks and Domingo are standouts, both actors lending their supporting characters the dazzling depth of feeling the script doesn’t have time to fully address through dialogue. Barrino, meanwhile, never quite reaches the heights Goldberg achieved as Celie in the 1985 film, but then again, Celie is an especially demanding part, a complicated woman whose every smile must seem hard-won. The actor shines instead where she needs to most, in Celie’s solos, with Barrino’s voice capturing the roiling well of emotion in every lyric.

And the truth is, that ability to fuse Celie as a character to music is enough for any take on The Color Purple. She’s an embodiment of the blues as a genre, a Black woman shaped by the Deep South, whose spirituality, pain, and determined pursuit of love inform her eventual sense of freedom and forgiveness. This latest adaptation may not hit every note established by Walker’s text and Spielberg’s drama, but it tells Celie’s story sensitively. It understands, in other words, that she comes with a uniquely imperfect, profound rhythm.

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