At first blush, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple doesn’t seem like the kind of prose to lend itself easily to a Broadway musical. The story of Celie, a poor African-American girl in the early 1900s, is an exceedingly difficult one, filled with physical and mental abuse, rape, bigotry, sexism, and other horrendous happenings. Walker let Celie’s pluck, faith, and a few inspiring friends keep the material from being a total downer, and those staging it on Broadway as a musical took those positive attributes to heart to ensure that audiences weren’t left filing out in utter despair.
Additionally, the original score written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, to accompany Marsha Norman’s book, emphasized styles of music that fit well with the material and the black experience: the blues, spirituals, and jazz. They fit the story perfectly and prevented the material from succumbing to anything too stylized or “showy” in a typical Broadway fashion. Additionally, the songs didn’t emphasize Celie’s pain as much as her faith and connection with friends, even those times when her life could be described as buoyant. The staging was modest too, playing more realistically than most shows, and such carefully considered decisions helped to create a wholly uplifting theatrical experience.
Fortunately, those adapting the musical for the big screen, have done the same. THE COLOR PURPLE, opening Christmas Day, not only adheres to the tenor of the Broadway show, but it is chock full of cinematic pluses as well: expert camera movement that never feels too showy, A+ production values from top to bottom, and acting done with heart and soul by a sterling cast. All in all, it’s a terrific present for the holiday season and an ebullient capper to a strong 2023 film year.
Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule has approached his directing of the film with a beautiful balance of reverence for the original staging, a keen awareness of the needs of cinema, and a laser-focused emphasis on Celie from the first minute to the last. THE COLOR PURPLE is her story, a wily story of quiet strength and perseverance. Adding more to her story, including a good chunk of narrative in Walker’s book after Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation concluded, allows for a much fuller picture. Bazawule shows the longer span of Celie’s arc and it turns into a much more uplifting experience for audiences. In Spielberg’s take, still well done, we cheered that Celie escaped her long abusive relationship with her husband Mister, but Bazawule shows us a decade or so more of Celie’s life after that. And they’re amazing chapters.
Fantasia Barrino plays Celie in a beautifully-pitched performance throughout. She’s as good in the silence as she is in the song. (And she can belt!) After all, Celie is a shy, even introspective character, and her dialogue is fairly minimal throughout. Barrino uses her facial expressions and body language to tell us everything about Celie for most of the film, and she does so wondrously. The actress may be making her film debut here, but she shows remarkable chops for understanding the subtleties of film acting. Even when she’s belting out some of her bigger numbers, Barrino doesn’t overdo it. It’s one of the year’s best performances.
That sense of modesty informs the other performers in the cast too, particularly Coleman Domingo essaying the tricky role of Mister. He’s the villain of the piece, of course, but Domingo doesn’t add insult to the character’s ability to injury. He lets Mister’s simple brutish actions speak for themselves without resorting to teeth gnashing. Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks play the key supporting turns with nuance too. Their turns as blues singer Shug Avery and strong-willed Sofia, respectively, are never over-the-top, despite their characters being full of largess. Every performance across the board shrewdly manages to honor Broadway without turning broad.
The regular scenes, as well as the musical numbers, are impeccably staged throughout, showcasing camera movements from cinematographer Dan Lausten that capture the action without pushing the envelope toward anything overly theatrical. The choreography is wonderful throughout, physical without showing off, all the better to keep the material grounded and the musical numbers interacting with the straight scenes seamlessly.
Bazawule lets the story breathe too. Celie’s silence fills the screen plenty, saying as much as any of her songs. The sharp screenplay by Marcus Gardley, honors Walker’s material too, including most of her famous scenes and lines of dialogue. Gardley’s script is smart to keep things off-screen too, correctly assuming that the audience knows what is going on without having to be spoonfed throughout.
The costumes often need to be gorgeous and are, particularly during Shug’s musical numbers, not to mention a fantasy number here and there, but overall they could look a bit more worn and less theatrical. The same could be said of the lighting which seems to have too much overt brightness in it at times. The sun seems to shine bright in this telling too, adding beauty to even the most troubling of moments. That goes against the grain of some of the darkness of the material it’s illuminating. Still, none of such slight miscalculations impair the overall effect of this terrific adaptation.
Perhaps the most surprising accomplishment in the film is how upbeat and inspiring this adaptation is, even allowing for some redemption in the more belligerent characters in the last half hour. But then again, that’s all in keeping in synch with both Celie’s forgiveness and Walker’s narrative. THE COLOR PURPLE showcases the long and winding road that Celie takes, similar to one we all walk, requiring courage to adapt, see the bigger picture, learn to mature, and yes, even forgive our enemies. Not a bad lesson this time of the year. Or any time of the year, for that matter.