Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has enthralled audiences since its release in 1982. The novel led to Walker receiving the 1983 Pulitzer Prize – a first for any African American woman – and has spawned two films and a Broadway musical. This winter, The Color Purple will bring the soaring Broadway musical to the silver screen.
The Color Purple overflows with Black American stars, talented newcomers and even fun cameos from the 1985 film. It’s amazing how the film maintains the perfect balance between the iconic movie and the moving epistolary. From top to bottom, director Blitz Bazawule has crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’. He instills love and passion in every facet of the film and considering Bazawule’s background as a visual artist, rapper, singer-songwriter and producer, it’s not surprising The Color Purple is filled with emotion. Bazawule has music in his bones, and it fills every frame.
“I Think It P*sses God off To Walk by the Color Purple and Not Notice.”
The Color Purple starts the way adoring fans will expect. The film introduces Young Nettie (Halle Bailey) along with her very pregnant sister, Celie (lovely newcomer Phylicia Pearl Mpasi). Together they do the things all kids do; climb trees, go shopping, and get into little mischiefs. But while Nettie has the benefit of naivety, Celie must switch off the reality of her situation. She’s pregnant for the second time with her father’s child, and Alonso (Deon Cole), wants to get rid of the baby as soon as possible.
While the 2023 film is a big, bold musical and while it certainly has its lighter moments, at its core it remains a harrowing tale of a depressed and abused young woman. Celie gets married off to Mister (Colman Domingo) who separates her from her only love in the world, her sister Nettie. Years go by and adult Celie (Fantasia Barrino) still resides in Mister’s house, taking care of his children and enduring his abuse.
When he’s not wreaking havoc on Celie, Mister obsesses over traveling chanteuse Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson). Mister’s fascination stirs Celie’s curiosity, and they both learn more when Mister’s eldest son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) books Shug for his new jukejoint. Cue Harpo’s new wife, Sofia (the amazing Danielle Brooks) and the film rounds out a cast full of Hollywood heavy hitters who bring everything they have to their roles.
Mpasi’s Celie is a revelation. She plays Celie’s naivety with such authenticity that you can only feel for the journey she’s about to embark on. She accepts her station in life, but it doesn’t keep her from dreaming. Fantasia carries this imagination into older Celie, but she also gives Celie a sense of agency and self-propriety. When Sofia stampedes towards Celie saying, “You told Harpo to beat me?”, Celie immediately confesses, saying she did because she was jealous of Sofia’s independence. This differs from the book and the 1985 film and adds a layer to Celie that gives the audience just enough hope to keep rooting for her.
“Cuz Shug’s Feelin’ Fine.”
Taraji P. Henson plays Shug with a drunken charm and a smoke-filled gospel alto that reverberates throughout the theater. Henson gets to go over the top, lavish, and nearly camp. Anyone watching will see she has a great time in the role. She handles the budding relationship between Shug and Celie with deft hands, and we believe the love the two have for each other.
Shug – like the audience – wants to save Celie, but she must first convince her she’s worth saving. Shug’s desire to mend the broken relationship with her father, Rev. Samuel Avery (David Alan Grier) is less successful both on and off screen. As the world progresses, it gets harder to accept the Reverend’s disapproval of Shug based on the fact that she is promiscuous and sings the blues. It’s also a relationship that’s never been sufficiently well-rounded and seems to serve as a way for Shug to get a triumphant moment, which she really doesn’t need. She’s Shug Avery!
Besides, the glory of Walker’s novel lies in the evolution of Celie, the elegance and endurance of Shug Avery, and Sofia's bold defiance. When talking about performance awards, Danielle Brooks name will surface as the one to beat. It would be easy to simply emulate Oprah Winfrey’s superb performance in the 1985 Spielberg film, but Brooks doesn't rest on her laurels. She takes Sofia and inhabits her character so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget she’s a supporting character. She doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, but every time she appears, she demands to be noticed and seen. Brooks belts not only with her strong, beautiful voice, but in her physicality and the way she purposefully takes up space. Sofia serves as a cautionary tale of what happens to women who strive for independence, and an inspirational tale of what happens to women when they get it.
When tasked with the duty of bringing The Color Purple to the big screen, Bazawule stepped up to the challenge. When a property is so beloved, it’s difficult to create something universally accepted by all, much less loved. This is where the passion for the film is so crucial. How do you put your stamp on the project while still indulging just enough in fan service? Bazawule found balance, and the result is thrilling.
The new film weaves some of the original movie's iconic lines into song. Sofia’s H*ll No! contains “a woman (changed from “girl child”) ain’t safe in a family full of men” and gives the audience even more tidbits to learn and recite. The juke joint looks built to scale, and Bazawule makes use of the claustrophobic space. When tensions run high, the joint feels like a powderkeg, waiting to explode into the mosquito-ridden swamp.
While The Color Purple is a globally recognized property, it’s still known primarily as a “Black” film. Stephen Spielberg directed the beloved 1985 film, so when that award season came, scoring 11 Academy nominations didn't surprise anyone. Despite the accolades, however, Speilberg didn't score a directing nomination, and the movie didn’t take home a single Oscar. Whoopi Goldberg did win a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, but outside of the NAACP Image Awards, Spielberg took home most of the statues.
This awards season will be very telling, and the competition will be steep in several key categories, putting The Color Purple at a disadvantage. That makes Danielle Brooks’s performance so important. Brooks managed to take an over-the-top role and ground it. She took what could have been a caricature and gave it authenticity. In Sofia, Brooks created a character worthy of empathy and pride in equal amounts. This is a universal language and one that I believe the Academy speaks.
Besides, it’s hard not to recognize a project with nearly flawless execution. If there are any negatives present, then they just point to the abundant quality of the film. The Color Purple is rich and filling, so viewers may not be willing to indulge again so soon after the first viewing. Viewers will laugh until it hurts and will cry until it doesn’t. The film demands an investment, and while it’s paid gladly, it can be a lot.
That said, it’s 100% worth it. The film pays its dividends and will not disappoint.
Score: 9.5/10 SPECS
The Color Purple will open in theaters on December 25th.