Although it sparked a change of direction for blockbuster director Steven Spielberg, his adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (who saw her performance gain an Academy Award nomination), was one of the most acclaimed pictures in 1985. The film has since seen a revival due to it becoming a Broadway musical in 2005, which saw American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino take on the lead role of Celie in 2007. Needless to say, the stage is set for her to make her way to the silver screen.
Set in Georgia, The Color Purple follows teen sisters Nettie (Halle Bailey) and Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) live with their abusive father Alphonso. Having raped and impregnated Celie twice and given her babies away, Alphonso soon forces her to marry Mister (Colman Domingo), an ill-tempered farmer who mentally and physically abuses his new wife. The film follows their stormy relationship that sees Celie (played as an adult by Barrino) struggle in her marriage until new-found friendships inspire her to find her strength.
Although the film takes part in the early 1900s, a decades-long difference between the publication of Alice Walker’s original novel and Bazawule’s adaptation, as well as modern perspectives on race and gender equality, are key points to consider in the filmmaking process. With that in mind, the 2023 adaptation incorporates a modern visuality that more closely represents the boldness of the musical (thanks to Bazawule’s vibrant direction, bold costume design and energetic choreography) instead of echoing the fragility of the 1985 film.
There is no denying that the narrative challenges the audience with its depictions of abuse, which stems from the men in Celie’s life. From her father Alphonso to her eventual husband, the much older Mister, Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley reinforce a lack of love throughout Cellie’s life through their bleak direction and brutal screenplay, which result in some tough-to-watch scenes involving physical and mental abuse. As this treatment is immediate from the get-go, this sombre combination immediately sets a sullen tone that tugs on the heartstrings with Celie’s need for someone kind driving the narrative. However, the psychological depth of this brutality feels brushed aside so their significance in Celie’s personal growth doesn’t hit as hard as it should. Instead, the musical numbers mostly come in and sweep up the narrative (and the audience’s attention) before any long-term damage settles on the screen.
Similar to the 1985 film, the film’s strength comes from its ensemble of female characters, who bring vibrancy and introduce empowerment in Celie’s life. While our protagonist meekly accepts the harsh treatment towards her, the women she meets and befriends fight against it through a coveted sense of defiance – Sofie refuses to be submissive despite marrying Mister’s son Harpo while the glamorous Shug has forsaken her religious family to become a successful blues singer, as well as creates a kinship with Celie despite being Mister’s former lover. There is a risk of these supporting characters being brushed off as abrasive but their musical sequences elevate their performances to incorporate mountains of sass, shaping them as the scene-stealing divas of Bazawule’s bold vision. Showcasing dynamite vocal performances, Taraji P Henson’s Shug embodies sexuality and confidence while Sofie, stunningly portrayed by newcomer Danielle Brooks, is as hilarious as she is powerful. The strength of their collective performances allows Fantasia Barrino, in her feature film debut, to shine through her amazing voice and her nuanced portrayal in the reprisal of her Broadway role. But this isn’t to say that the male cast members do not make an impact as Domingo and Hawkins’ performances beautifully complement the ensemble through their musicality and strong on-screen presence.
Overall, The Color Purple occasionally suffers from tonal issues but is ultimately an electrifying adaptation of Walker’s novel that champions the talents of its incredible ensemble cast.
The Color Purple is out in UK cinemas on Friday 26 January.
Director: Bazawule; Marcus Gardley (screenwriter)
Stars: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Halle Bailey, Aunjaune Ellis-Taylor
Runtime: 141 minutes