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The Color Purple

Directed by Blitz Bazawule
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders, Oprah Winfrey, and Quincy Jones
Screenplay by Marcus Gardley Based on the stage musical by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, and Marsha Norman Based on the novel by Alice Walker
With: 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, Elizabeth Marvel, and Whoopi Goldberg
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Editing: Jon Poll
Music: Kristopher Bowers
Runtime: 141 min
Release Date: 25 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

I first read Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple when I was in my late teens. I had by then seen the film based on the book several times, but, like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and John Irving's The World According to Garp, the author's original prose was so powerful it created an entirely different movie in my head than the one I knew from the Hollywood version. With its epistolary structure, descriptive powers, and character insights, Walker's writing painted a far richer, more complex first-person narrative for me, distinct from the one I knew and admired from the silver screen. The Color Purple is an enthralling, rigorous, illuminating tale of survival and self-discovery that documents the painstaking process of finding one's own definition of faith, family, and love over a lifetime.

The 2005 stage-musical version of The Color Purple is also based on Walker's 1982 novel and incorporates material from the acclaimed but controversial 1985 film version directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Quincy Jones with a screenplay by Menno Meyjes. I've never seen the Broadway musical, but I can imagine that many of the aspects ported over to this screen adaptation would work infinitely better in the live theater context. Abstractions and artifice are inherent in a live theatrical performance. A doorframe can represent a house. A character can turn to the audience and start talking directly to us in the middle of an argument with another. A one-dimensional chorus-type character we've never seen before can walk on, point a finger, say or sing a single line, and profoundly alter the narrative without us questioning who they are or where they came from. Live stage productions have these and many other pre-established contexts and conventions that are a natural part of the theater experience.

But movies, especially movies that use all the tools available to a major Hollywood production, attempt to recreate a reality-based environment. The storytelling techniques used in theater can become incongruous and ineffective when used in the movies, with the result that musical films that tackle thorny issues have been difficult to pull off for the past fifty years. Though they can feature devastating, heartbreaking, and transcendent songs and sequences, most great musical pictures ease their way slowly into the pain and hardships of their characters' situations. Cabaret and The Sound of Music are ultimately about the rise of Nazi Germany, but they begin with their protagonists attempting to navigate personal circumstances. Fiddler on the Roof ends with a pogrom in which the tsar of Russia forces the Jewish characters to flee the village they love so much, but most of the movie deals with the joys, sorrows, and routines of everyday life in that community.

This type of upbeat setup is not possible when dealing with a story about a woman who lives essentially as an indentured servant, first to her father—who repeatedly beats and rapes her, selling their offspring—and then to the husband her father trades her to (in exchange for a few chickens), a man who treats her even worse. Celie Harris has one joy in life: her relationship with her sister Nettie. But that connection is threatened from the first pages of the book and the first sequence in the 1985 film. There just isn't room for an upbeat scene-setting opening number at the start of this story. Celie's life is so painful and abusive that it does not lend itself to the upbeat BMI Workshop formula for transforming classic, or more often campy, movies into musical theater. That formula has been dominant for the past three decades, ever since Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin made the inventive Off-Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors in 1982 from the 1960 Roger Corman quickie of the same name.

The 1985 film The Color Purple masterfully conveyed the oppressive brutality and hardship of Celie's life while still being a PG-13-rated film that families could watch. Much of that movie's accessibility came from the spellbinding performances of its cast, especially Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut as Celie. A relative unknown at the time, despite her acclaimed one-woman show on Broadway, Goldberg embodied Walker's protagonist with such authenticity we could never turn away regardless of the cruelty inflicted upon Celie. Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau devised artful compositions that framed the unsparing narrative. And Meyjes' carefully crafted screenplay handles the passage of time in the most inventive of ways. I can not think of another feature film spanning most of its protagonist's lifetime that better conveys the feeling that we have spent years and decades with the characters.

The 2023 film has none of these transfixing attributes. Filmmaker, producer, and musician Blitz Bazawule (one of the directors of Beyoncé’s 2020 musical film Black Is King) conducts The Color Purple as if it were a splashy, upbeat pageant. The screenplay by Marcus Gardley (the acclaimed playwright of The House That Will Not Stand) treats Walker's book, Meyjes' screenplay, and the book of the stage musical by Marsha Norman (writer of 'night, Mother, and librettist for the musicals of The Secret Garden and The Bridges of Madison County) as if they were odd-sized bricks that must be smashed, shaved, and broken into fragments to build a smooth, uniform wall. That magical sense of decades passing is nowhere to be found in this film version. We come out of this movie feeling like we've witnessed 141 minutes in the lives of these characters. And almost without exception, the players in this version invite negative comparisons to the 1985 cast.

Fantasia Barrino has a lovely singing voice, but she never inhabits Celie. She always seems like an actor in a costume. Colman Domingo does his best to make Celie's husband, Albert "Mister" Johnson, feel like a realistic character, but he never instills the kind of fear the imposing Danny Glover was able to convey with just a word or a look. Taraji P. Henson fairs better as Shug Avery, the glamorous nightclub singer who has a romantic relationship with both Celie and Albert. But the clumsy way this movie handles time means that Shug's entrances never land with the power they should, and the pain of her absence is never felt when she exits. 87-year-old icon Louis Gossett Jr. should be ideal casting for the role of Ol' Mister Johnson, but he's given so little screen time the character barely registers, unlike Adolph Caesar's masterful performance in the 1985 film. Similarly, Corey Hawkins as Harpo, Elizabeth Marvel as Miss Millie, and singer-songwriter H.E.R. as Squeak all pale by comparison to Willard Pugh, Dana Ivey, and Rae Dawn Chong in the same roles.

Danielle Brooks, playing Sofia, is the only actor who makes a favorable impression. She has some big shoes to fill, as Sofia was Oprah Winfrey's debut as an actor, and the role made her a star. Brooks became famous on the HBO series Orange Is the New Black and played Sofia to great acclaim on Broadway. She fully embodies the character's confidence and outspoken swagger. She's far less convincing than Winfrey when Sofia's fierce self-possession gets stripped from her after she's jailed and then forced to work as a maid. But no actor could convincingly portray Sofia's downfall in a movie that can't figure out how to establish time passing. The gutting of Sofia's spirit and identity plays like a mere bump in the road of life in this version. We feel none of the devastating loss Winfrey captured, so the eventual return of the character's fire is far less rewarding. (Still, Brooks stands out among the rest of the ensemble to such a degree that she nabbed the movie's only Oscar nomination.)

As this breezy production zips along with its painfully obvious truncations of songs written for the stage musical (some as short as 60 seconds in this movie!) and its absurd sanitizing of the story's historical context, I almost expected Barrino's Celie to burst into a full-blown production number called "Beat Her" about how best to keep your woman in line. We don't get that, of course, but the saccharine self-empowerment narrative we do get is almost as bad. Celie's emotional journey feels more connected to contemporary attitudes about resilience and identity via entrepreneurship and branding than to the time period in which these characters live. In Walker's novel, Celie becomes a successful dressmaker; in this movie, she becomes a girl-boss.

Critics of the 1985 picture attacked it on several fronts. Many accused it of stereotyping all Black men as violent beasts. This version allays that critique by giving Albert a redemptive arc that feels both unearned and tone-deaf in the #metoo era—though once again, the biggest problem with how Albert's relationship with Celie is transformed in the third act stems from this movie's inability to convey the passage of time. Queer critics of the 1985 film faulted it for the way it softened and downplayed the lesbian element, which is so powerful and crucial to Celie's self-discovery in Walker's novel. But in that film, the brief love scene comes at a point when the characters have gotten to know each other to a degree in which we can see how they've developed feelings of love and respect as well as attraction. The scene may not be explicit, but the emotions and sense of discovery, excitement, and joy feel authentic to the book. The musical version plays its scenes of romantic and sexual discovery as if they were happening in a Disney Channel high-school musical. It's all about tingles and goosebumps, disregarding the context in which these characters come together in favor of something relatable to any generic coming-of-age narrative.

In 1985, many considered Spielberg to be the wrong director for The Color Purple. Not only was he a white man, but at the time, he was only known as a fantasist, the director of eye-popping, family and kiddy entertainments like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Spielberg was accused of using Walker's story to prove he could make movies for adults. This point was and remains a fair criticism. Spielberg was indeed expanding his range and reputation with this movie. But to call the 1985 film a white man's interpretation negates the work of producer Quincy Jones, who developed the project and chose Spielberg to direct; of Walker, who revised Meyjes' screenplay and worked with the actors during the filming; and of half the production team who were African-American, as stipulated by Walker as part of her deal in selling the film rights. Our absurd devotion to the reductionist auteur theory, which assumes a film's director is responsible for every creative decision, makes it impossible for most audiences to reconcile the fact that much of "the Spielberg version" was the shared vision of many collaborators.

Ironically, one of the things Spielberg was called out for in 1985 was making too many moments comical and laying on the sentimentality too thick, especially during uplifting moments. The sequence many critics of the day singled out as an example was the late-occurring scene when Shug brings her band into her father's church, and everyone joyfully sings and dances up a storm. This new version of The Color Purple seems like an attempt to make a feature-length adaptation of that scene. In 2023, The Color Purple musical film feels like an attempt to correct everything wrong with the 1985 picture by quintupling down on the very aspects people complained about back then.

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In one of the most schizophrenic mismatches of tone and subject matter ever committed to screen, Alice Walker's punishing, enlightening, enthralling novel gets the full Little Shop of Horrors treatment in this shamelessly slight and sanitized musical adaptation.