Running Time: 141 mins
UK Distributor: Warner Bros
UK Release Date: 26 January 2024
WHO’S IN THE COLOR PURPLE?
Fantasia Barrino, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Ciara, Halle Bailey, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Batiste, Louis Gossett Jr., David Alan Grier, Deon Cole, Tamela J. Mann, Stephen Hill, Elizabeth Marvel
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Blitz Bazawule (director), Marcus Gardley (writer), Quincy Jones, Scott Sanders, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey (producers), Kris Bowers (composer), Dan Laustsen (cinematographer), Jon Poll (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In early 20th century Georgia, a young woman (Barrino) goes on a journey of self-realisation…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE COLOR PURPLE?
It certainly isn’t easy to make a lively, bombastic musical out of source material that is drenched, literally from the start, in utter misery. How would you feel if some truly awful stuff was happening in your personal life, whether it’s being in an abusive relationship or being diagnosed with a life-changing illness, and then all of a sudden everyone around you was singing and dancing like they’re in A Chorus Line? It’d be a confusing state to live in, wouldn’t it?
However, for the creators of the hit Broadway production The Color Purple – based both on Alice Walker’s best-selling novel, and the equally acclaimed 1985 Steven Spielberg adaptation – turning misery into merriness came surprisingly easy, as it does for director Blitz Bazawule’s own jovial take on the musical, which retains the moving and at times even euphoric nature of the story for new audiences to digest.
That’s quite impressive, really, for a film that introduces paedophilia right off the bat.
Unfortunately, I’m not exaggerating: the film opens in early 1900s Georgia, where young Black girl Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) is pregnant with her second child by her sexually abusive father Alphonso (Deon Cole). Despite her horrific treatment, she nonetheless cherishes every moment she spends with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey), but even they turn out to be limited when Alphonso takes away the child for adoption, and later forces Celie to marry local farmer Albert “Mister” Johnson (Colman Domingo), who turns out to be no better than her incestuous father, especially after he separates the sisters for good.
Some years later, Celie (now played by Fantasia Barrino) has more or less resigned to her unhappy existence, until she meets her strong-willed daughter-in-law Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and famed jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), who both help to nudge her down a path of self-realisation, ultimately to a point where, in spite of everything she has endured throughout her life, she emerges as a truly unique person.
Even though I had not read the original book, nor seen either the stage musical or even the Spielberg film, I was certainly aware of many of the story’s grim themes like domestic abuse and child molestation. In fact, it almost seems like a prototype for many of the unflattering Black-centric pieces of media that American Fiction was satirising (to add to the irony, a trailer for that film played in front of this screening). You can imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when I quickly discovered the somewhat upbeat tone that this version of The Color Purple proudly carries throughout, which in many ways made the experience unexpectedly delightful.
On top of the energetic musical numbers, which feature plenty of bouncy choreography captured through Dan Laustsen’s colourful cinematography, Blitz Bazawule’s crowd-pleasing direction defies the otherwise bleak overtones of the story itself, and brings out a euphoric nature in the sets, costumes, Kris Bowers’ accompanying musical score, and especially the performances (more on them in a bit). It’s almost like watching a feature-length music video, and that’s intended as a compliment, not just because Bazawule was previously a director for Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King, but also due to how the filmmaker has a keen knack for injecting heightened and even fantastical imagery into his scenes that enliven the narrative and allow us a peek inside the characters’ heads.
For instance, there is a sequence shot on a soundstage with an orchestra like it’s an early Hollywood musical, and another where a character sings and walks around on a giant gramophone whilst a piano occupies the record’s centre. While hardly the first time a musical like The Color Purple has dipped into fantasy in order to stage some of its most intricate numbers, Bazawule brings a fresh enough energy to them where you are enchanted by their staging and creativity, in addition to being fully engrossed in their dramatic contexts.
Most of all, though, it is the fiery and utterly passionate work of this eclectic ensemble cast that makes The Color Purple a truly wondrous viewing experience. You have characteristically charismatic turns by great actors like Taraji P. Henson and Colman Domingo – the latter of whom’s turn as the nasty Mister is certainly solid, though I feel perhaps he is maybe too charming for a role that you’re clearly meant to dislike for most of it – as well as absolute forces of nature such as Danielle Brooks, who all but walks away with the entire film for her utter powerhouse of a performance.
However, it is Fantasia Barrino who ends up impressing the most, for the former American Idol winner quite brilliantly captures Celie’s formidable arc from this abused housewife into a more assured and confident woman, allowing the viewer to see the natural progression of this character’s journey without cutting a whole lot of corners. Not to mention, as you might expect from someone who won a televised singing competition, Barrino completely brings the house down with a couple of her showstopping numbers, almost to where you’re compelled to burst into applause in the otherwise quiet cinema auditorium right as she belts out her final notes.
In terms of flaws, The Color Purple has a few notable ones, namely some pacing issues as it takes a bit more time than necessary to get the story going, especially in the first section of the film. There’s even a point where the film stops dead to perform one of its few specially-written numbers, perhaps in a ploy to market it as its contender for the Original Song Oscar, or at the very least to give supporting player Halle Bailey a bit more to do.
However, even with its bloated pace, the film still manages to leave some of its characters and plot points feeling somewhat underdeveloped. For instance, the singer H.E.R has a small role as a character who, from what little I do know about the original story, has a much larger part to play than she does here, where she’s just more or less there in the background until she gets a few words in every now and then. Other aspects of the plot, such as a blossoming same-sex relationship between two main characters, and even another character’s redemption arc much later on in the film, are either lightly touched upon and then almost never addressed again, or just a little bit out of nowhere to a point where it feels slightly out of character for that particular person.
Aside from those relatively minor flaws, this version of The Color Purple is an infectiously lively retelling of a surprisingly uplifting story where, despite its miserable themes, a little bit of song and dance really does make a lot of difference.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Color Purple is an entertaining and uplifting musical rendition of the original story that defies its miserable themes through lively filmmaking by director Blitz Bazawule, an excellent ensemble cast led by an impressive Fantasia Barrino, and despite some pacing issues a profound sense of emotional engagement in its overall storytelling.