Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has been a seminal presence in American literature since its publication in 1982, inspiring both a film adaptation from Steven Spielberg in 1985 and a Broadway musical adaptation in 2005. Do I wish this latest Color Purple was just a straightforward adaptation of Walker’s novel? Yes, but that’s just me and my thing about musicals. I almost always wish musicals weren’t musicals, and though The Color Purple doesn’t overcome my distaste for the genre, I recognize this will work for pretty much everyone else.
Fantasia Barrino reprises the role of Celie, which she originated on Broadway in the 2000s, as Danielle Brooks also returns to the role of Sofia after playing her in the 2010s revival of the stage musical. The film boasts an all-star cast, as Barrino and Brooks are joined by Taraji P. Henson as juke joint singer Shug, Ciara stars as Nettie, and H.E.R stars as Squeak. The younger versions of Celie and Nettie are played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and Halle Bailey, respectively, and the men of the cast include Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Deon Cole, David Alan Grier, and Louis Gossett, Jr.
The musical follows the same template as the novel—as children in the 1900s rural South, sisters Nettie and Celie are cruelly separated by “Mister” (Domingo), Celie’s abusive husband. The sisters’ lives are filled with traumas from physical abuse to sexual assault, including presumed incest, and after they are separated, Celie never hears from Nettie again. Celie’s life is then a seemingly unending chain of misery as she goes from one tragedy to another, her only respite her relationship with Shug and the friendships formed between the women that orbit Mister’s family, including Sofia and Squeak. Eventually, Celie leaves Mister and her fortunes begin to change, and though her relationship with Shug is complicated, there is something passing for a happy ending as Celie and Nettie are eventually reunited.
It's a lot! Many bad things happen to these women who are just trying to survive! Truly one of the most depressing stories! The film, though, combats the darkness with music and dance. While the songs aren’t particularly memorable, the musical numbers as performances are. Director Blitz Bazawule, who directed segments of Beyoncé’s Black Is King, crafts spectacular showstopper after spectacular showstopper. Taken out of context as just pieces of musical theater, these numbers are outrageously good, the main issue for the film is just how uncomfortably the musicality of the show sits with the narrative of the story. At times, The Color Purple rushes into musical numbers, undercutting emotional beats and not allowing the audience to sit with the deeper moments. It’s deliberate, the choice here is to emphasize joy not trauma, but it just makes one wonder if there yet remains a more perfect adaptation of this story that actually finds the balance between the two.
But those musical numbers are great. Bazawule positions The Color Purple within the legacy of Black musicals and Black musical performances in classic cinema, referencing films such as Stormy Weather, Porgy and Bess, Purple Rain, and stand-out musical numbers performed by Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, and Louis Armstrong. The dance numbers are deliberately anachronistic, connecting classic cinema, musical theater, and the many dance styles that have grown out of Black culture in America over the last 100 years. It’s a rich tapestry of the art form, probably best appreciated by those who, you know, actually enjoy said art form.
The moments in between the song and dance bits are mostly good, though that inherent dissonance between story and song is never quite resolved. But the ensemble cast is simply fantastic, with Danielle Brooks delivering a stand-out performance as Sofia. She emotes so much with just her glances that at times, vocalizing almost seems redundant, though she can crush a solo and a monologue, too. It’s also a great-looking film, with production design by Paul D. Austerberry, set decoration by Larry Dias, art direction from Andi Crumbley and Carla Martinez, and costumes by Rashad Corey and Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen—who also lensed the similarly stage-inspired Shape of Water—gets all the best angles in the dance numbers, making the most of the cinematic environment to showcase the cast and dance troupe.
What the lyrics lack in memorability the performances and dance numbers make up for, and it is the rare modern movie musical that takes full advantage of cinema’s unique capabilities when translating from stage to screen. It’s easy to see how this exists on stage, but you cannot replicate Bazawule’s direction in a live space, he is working with and for the camera. This is a good old-fashioned movie musical. The Color Purple is at once an exuberant musical and a devastating emotional drama, though these two forms sit uneasily together. Mostly, though, it’s a crowd-pleasing tear-jerker, choosing to focus more on resiliency and Black joy than what Taraji P. Henson recently deemed “the muck” of portraying Black trauma on screen.
The Color Purple is now playing exclusively in theaters.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post was titled “Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple” because she is the lead of this film. Fantasia, however, was not at the Palm Springs Film Festival but Taraji P Henson did attend and these are the most recent photos of a cast member of the film. To make this more clear, we have changed the title of the post to the one you see here.