Credit: Warner Bros.
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

The Color Purple — Blitz Bazawule

December 26, 2023

The entire notion of turning The Color Purple into a musical has always felt a little unseemly. Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, the book was brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg in 1985 as a straight drama and was something of a sensation, grossing more than seven times its budget and earning 11 Oscar nominations (although notably not for Spielberg’s direction in what was seen at the time as a rebuke of the director’s naked aspirations to be viewed as a serious filmmaker). Both the book and the film explored the insidious tendrils of sexual assault and domestic abuse in the American south during the first half of the 20th century, arguing that they’re learned traits with origins in slavery, passed down from father to son across generations and disproportionately suffered by women of color. Even with Spielberg’s weak-kneed attempts to soft-pedal the debasement or undercut the violence with moments of levity, it remains heavy material with numerous scenes of women being beaten or fending off the attacks of would-be rapists. At the same time, the most memorable sequences of the film are those set at Harpo’s juke joint or in the company of jazz singer Shug Avery — between these scenes and the “Anything Goes” sequence from Temple of Doom a year earlier, all the signs were there that Spielberg would someday direct a hell of a movie-musical — and with record producer Quincy Jones as the dominant creative voice on the film, it was inevitable someone would someday set this story to music.

2023’s version of The Color Purple follows the now relatively common filmtotheaterbacktofilm trajectory (see also: The Producers, Hairspray, next month’s Mean Girls) as an adaptation of the 2005 Tony-winning production, as well as the 2015 Broadway revival which first cast Danielle Brooks as Sofia, a role she reprises here. The film primarily follows the character of Celie, played as a young woman by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and Fantasia Barrino — herself a veteran of the stage production — as an adult, who we meet as a teenager about to give birth to her second child courtesy of her own father. Plain-looking and uneducated, Celie has the baby yanked from her breast (as was the first one) and given away to another family to conceal her father’s shame and so he can resume using her as a plaything and workhorse. After Celie’s younger, prettier sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) is approached by the widower “Mister” (Colman Domingo) looking for a young wife to raise his children and keep his house, the girls’ father brokers a compromise: he’ll marry off Celie to Mister and replace her in his bed with Nettie. Celie falls into a joyless existence of cooking, cleaning, and being on the receiving end of slaps from Mister for being insufficiently subservient. She gets the briefest of reprieves after Nettie runs away from their father and stays with them for a few weeks. However, after Mister himself tries to rape her, Nettie is banished from the house, with Mister pledging the two sisters will never speak to each other again. 

Years pass and true to Mister’s threat, Nettie is never heard from, despite her promise to write every week. Mister’s children grow up and move out of the house; his eldest son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) finds himself in the family way with Sofia (Brooks), a spirited woman whose refusal to suffer in silence is in stark contrast to Celie’s docility. One of Mister’s former lovers, the worldly Shug (Taraji P. Henson), blows into town, staying at the house and stirring passions in both husband and wife. In particular, she tempts Celie with talk of seeing the rest of the country and being spared from daily beatings while showing her a kindness she’s never experienced before (in contrast to the Spielberg film, this version is slightly less timid about depicting physical intimacy between two women). But Celie’s existence is primarily one of sadness, fear, and isolation, with her journey of gradual self-actualization taking place over decades. It’s a film spent waiting for the character to finally reach her breaking point and flee the subjugation she believes she has no choice but to endure. 

In turning itself into a musical, the film attempts to address one of the real obstacles inherent in adapting Walker’s novel — written as an epistolary novel — which is that Celie’s solitude and loneliness require her feelings be almost entirely internalized, with the character daring not to speak her desires into the world. As staged by director Blitz Bazawulebest known for collaborating on the Beyoncé-fronted, Lion King visual-companion Black is King — the musical numbers in The Color Purple are typically treated as fantasy sequences, ostensibly punctuating the misery of the characters’ lives with flights of fancy where they imagine themselves on old Hollywood sound stages or strolling next to a waterfall accompanied by synchronized dancers. Bazawule favors speeding up the frame rate so his actors can strut defiantly in slow motion and filming against vaguely plastic-looking outdoor locations with lots of previously unseen extras flying in to cut a rug, but none of these sequences especially distinguish themselves. They feel under-conceived, tenuously incorporated, and attempt to simulate freneticism by flying in backup dancers to do flips, as if to distract from how stationary and solemn the main cast is (Hawkins being a notable exception in his abridged number). Further, they rarely serve their intended purpose of offering a spirited reprieve from the drudgery of real life. Rather, it all plays like someone has inserted a dozen short music videos into an otherwise vein-opening account of routine violence and degradation, their inclusion feeling wholly detached from the film around them, even offering opportune moments to run to the restroom without “missing anything.” For all the obvious effort, production value, and high-energy choreography, nothing here is as levitating as the scene in the Spielberg film where Margaret Avery performs “Miss Celie’s Blues” to Whoopi Goldberg, with the two actresses continually capturing one another’s glance from across a crowded bar. 

Of course, it would help if the songs were better. Earworms and toe-tapping melodies are in short supply in The Color Purple; the closest the film gets to a show-stopping number is Brooks’ door-kicking, anti-abuse anthem “Hell No,” which the film is wise to reprise in a darker context near the end of its second act. Instead, much of the soundtrack is made up of blandly forgettable “I want more”-style ballads, which compliments Barrino’s auditorium-filling talents as a singer. It’s a performance that opens up over the course of the film, revealing the actress’ limitations at non-verbally expressing disappointment and heartache, but also fully blossoming when Barrino’s three big songs arrive in the final 20 minutes, after the character has successfully escaped the yoke of Mister. It’s a regrettable compromise which encourages the Celie character to recede into the background of non-singing scenes, being overshadowed by her more demonstrative scene partners, while still being asked to carry the film on her shoulders. One wonders how The Color Purple might have played with a more dynamic actress with perhaps a less soaring voice at its center — in general, Bazawule has a curious habit of casting musicians like H.E.R. and Jon Batiste in supporting roles while mostly asking them to not sing. But the larger issue remains: the film is attempting to put a sunny spin and inspiring redemptive arc on material that is inherently introspective and, candidly, deeply depressing. Where Spielberg attempted to find small grace notes and stray moments of observational humor to temper the unrelenting bleakness, Bazawule not only expands on that over-eagerness to please, but he risks it becoming the film’s entire identity. It makes for a movie about the lingering harms of slavery, social injustices, and rampant misogyny that’s also trying to send you off dancing out into the aisles. The film mistakenly believes the two modes can co-exist without the latter cheapening the former. Does it hold together in any way? Hell no!

DIRECTOR: Blitz Bazawule;  CAST: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Halle Bailey, Corey Hawkins;  DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros. Pictures;  IN THEATERS: December 25;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 20 min.