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Featured Review

The Color Purple (2023) ★★★★★



Release: 26th January 2024

Director: Blitz Bazawule

Starring: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Halle Bailey, Ciara, H.E.R., David Alan Grier, Deon Cole, Jon Batiste, Louis Gossett Jr., Tamela J. Mann & Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

Blitz Bazawule’s The Color Purple is a special film. Based on the award-winning Broadway musical, it’s a bold, one-of-a-kind reimagining of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, filled with beauty, heart, soul and plenty of magic along the way. Losing none of its substance or power, this take embraces an empowering message on womanhood through the stellar performances of its leading female stars Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks.

None of this should be surprising, especially when The Color Purple resonates deeply amongst the Black community. After a year of industry disruption and franchise fatigue, something like The Color Purple’s musical reinvention is an active reminder on what cinema can accomplish when granted the opportunity. Well, the results speak for themselves, with the film breaking a 9-year record at the US Box Office over Christmas and Brooks deservedly picking up an Oscar nomination for her role as Sofia. 

The comparisons between Bazawule’s version and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film are inevitable. Such is the richness of Walker’s story and how it has migrated from book, to film, to stage adaptation and back to the big screen, its transcendence has allowed audiences to experience different modes of access. For the most part, Spielberg’s opus remains forever etched on our minds alongside the iconic performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The 2023 version blazes a trail by opening the door to a whole new generation, proving the story’s relevance remains deeply poignant as the day Walker wrote it.

There’s something to be said about Purple’s adaptations (including Bazawule’s version) and how they tackle the novel’s hard-hitting elements. Spielberg was widely criticised for not going far enough in depicting Celie and Shug’s queer relationship (something he would later admit to being afraid to commit on-screen), and subsequently downplays their romance. Bazawule’s musical adaptation doesn’t escape those criticisms either, knowing the heavy subject matters of domestic abuse, sexual assault, violence and racism – aspects which warrant deeper discussion – are intertwined with the light and airy dissonance of a song and dance. Musicals are far from perfect mediums, yet Bazawule’s film offers something different. Black stories are more than painful hardships and trauma. Here is a showcase to see Blackness in other spectrums and, in sticking with that committed vision where joy and sisterhood run through its veins, it achieves a life-affirming celebration.

After beginning on a short musical overture with Mister (Colman Domingo) riding his horse and playing his banjo (an ominous motif of events to come), it doesn’t take long for the familiar grooves of Walker’s story to settle in. We’re introduced to Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Netty (Halle Bailey) through the song “Huckleberry Pie”, a joyous uplift of love and unbreakable sisterly bond. While screen time is limited for the pair, Bailey brings plenty of warmth and charm, but Mpasi’s role shouldn’t go unnoticed. In her feature debut, she takes on the difficult task of playing a character stuck in an abusive cycle at the hands of her on-screen father Alphonso (Deon Cole), pregnancy – plus subsequent forced adoption of her two children – before enduring a monstrous marriage to Mister that devalues her self-worth and reduces her to domesticated submissiveness. But like Bailey, she sets the tone, seamlessly passing the baton to Fantasia to chart Celie’s decade-spanning story of trials, tribulations and the defiant reclamation of her identity with the influential women of Sofia and Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) in her company.

The film stamps its authority through gorgeous production design and staging. As if the remit was to “go big or go home”, Bazawule’s experience on Beyoncé’s Black is King brings scale, visual spectacle and imagination to the production. The sexy “Push Da Button”, the Gospel-inspired “Mysterious Ways”, or the sultry tones of “What About Love?” are reminiscent of the MGM musicals era, where big-hearted escapism, vivid colours and high-octane choreography burst with energy. 

Naturally it feeds into how Bazawule’s direction utilises transitions between scenes, which are a marvel to watch. A slow, 360 degree camera pan shows the changing seasons, introducing us to the adult Celie. A kiss can transport us from Harpo (Corey Hawkins) and Sofia’s home to their marriage ceremony. But perhaps one of the film’s most beautiful moments comes when Shug takes Celie to the cinema to see The Flying Ace. “It’s time for Celie to see the world”, Shug declares, and the magic of cinema transports them to another world of glamour and musical decadence. The simplicity, the love, the slow bleed from black and white to colour as Celie starts to see a world beyond Mister’s wickedness and cruelty are breathtaking. It’s such sincerity that makes The Color Purple so invigorating. Even when crossing musical genres and tones, Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Jon Poll’s sharp editing ensure these creative elements carry the necessary emotional punch.

Having to follow the iconic turns of Whoopi, Oprah, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, and Cynthia Erivo (if we count the Broadway play) should have caused their 2023 counterparts to get stuck in their shadow. Yet, this cast does them proud in making the roles their own. Domingo showcases his talented range in playing the complex sides of Mister, a man unable to escape his own destructive cycle of abuse from his father (played by Louis Gossett Jr), and whose despicable viciousness towards Celie – as with Glover’s performance in the 1985 film – fills you with hatred and disgust. 

But the film’s heart and strength comes from its central trio of leading ladies. Collectively (also demonstrated out-of-universe in Henson’s recent comments about the struggles of being a Black actress in Hollywood), the film shapes their journey as a powerful statement on finding hope and resilience through unity rather than pitting against each other. Taraji brings the free-spirited sexiness to Shug with her exuberance and passion that becomes a shining light into Celie’s life. Brooks is a natural scene stealer.  She takes no prisoners with her humour, and her rendition of “Hell No” is a fierce anthem. But it is in Sofia’s downfall at the hands of Millie (Elizabeth Marvel)and her subsequent comeback where Brooks showcases her range of emotions. Just like Oprah’s performance, it’s a moment that never ceases to make me cry, and Brooks nails the dramatic shifts. As for Fantasia, her voice moves mountains for her sheer power and range, growing from the loss of her sister into a defiant reclamation of her identity. By the time it reaches “I’m Here”, the tears will fall. 

Wearing its heart on its sleeve, The Color Purple is an emotional and joyous cinematic odyssey through sisterhood, healing and self-love. It reaches for your soul and never lets go, and in turn, becomes a worthy adaptation in its own right. 

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