Genre: Drama and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.
Release Date: December 25th, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Blitz Bazawule Actors: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Halle Bailey, H.E.R., David Alan Grier, Deon Cole, Louis Gossett Jr.
espite the marketing department’s efforts to suppress how much of a musical “The Color Purple” is, the gig is up within a few seconds, as the first words uttered are sung. And the very second scene features dancing. It’s without a doubt a musical; it’s also based on the Broadway production from 2005, the revival in 2015, and, of course, the Steven Spielberg film from 1985 (itself based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker) – to the latter of which it bears the closest resemblance, as virtually all of the songs from the previous musical iterations have been replaced or revamped.
Beginning in 1909 on the Georgia coast, young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) gives birth for the second time, only to have her newborn snatched away by her father, to be disposed of immediately. Along with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey), the two must contend with heaps of abuse, not just from their father, but also from a neighbor like Mister (Colman Domingo), who comes looking for a wife. At least they have each other for a spell, but even that joyful companionship is destined to vanish.
The story is, almost beat for beat, the same as in the 1985 picture, retaining many identical, memorable scenes and outcomes. But right from the start, the singing and dancing are undoubtedly a different additive, making exceptional use of energetic, rhythmically-contorting figures, combining period-era steps with extremely modern writhing. The choreography is often exceptional, especially when daydream asides pop up for locations to change, brimming with countless extras, or for more standard Hollywood sets to fill the frame, employing fantasy embellishments for big numbers with plenty of pizzazz. Yet as every song arrives (nearly all in the style of gospel and blues), it’s almost as if they merely reiterate an existing mood or emphasize a situation that has already taken place; rarely do they actually move the plot forward or add details to the characters.
“The lord works in mysterious ways,” croons a churchgoer in one of the multitude of gospel pieces. It’s a curious cover for cruelty and human atrocities, as this is an incredibly dark tale to transform into a musical. If Spielberg’s version glossed over some of the violence (a common criticism during its debut), this latest take truly eases up on the enormity – perhaps more purposefully to allow for a smoother transition into merrymaking. The soundtrack is consistently upbeat and lively and percussive (the regular instrumental accompaniment is grand), providing an opportunity for Fantasia Barrino (playing the adult Celie) to bellow some superb notes. And she’s joined by a talented cast; there’s no weak link in the supporting performers.
Nevertheless, it’s still the basic material that resounds: the contrasts between the strong-willed and the browbeaten, exemplified firstly by the unexpected role-reversal with Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and Harpo (Corey Hawkins); fighters versus victims, and the way these designations similarly somersault; outer strength versus inner beauty (or the inner strength of perseverance); forgiveness and comeuppance; and the emotional powerhouses that are Celie and Sofia during challenging confrontations. The callous moments are still callous; the humorous moments still humorous; and the uplifting moments still uplifting. The story remains poignant and potent, while the characters are sympathetic, villainous, or vibrant, each fully detailed and meticulously designed.
In fact, the dramatic sequences are so striking that one must wonder – particularly during the last act, when the singing dies off, never really being missed – whether it was time for another straightforward adaptation of the book, rather than a musical. This is the kind of genre portmanteau that excels during the splashy numbers and also during the tear-jerking revelations, but can’t quite blend the two concepts together harmoniously; removing the songs might go unnoticed, considering the comprehensiveness of the standard storytelling. And some of the imagery, actions, and dialogue present the intricacies of relationships and resolutions in more obvious manners than in the previous theatrical iteration (along with the meaning of the title), which actually aid in relating the tragedies more precisely. The finale is yet another example of the structural discordancy, boasting a heartwarming reconciliation and reunion, only to segue into a closing song that feels noticeably needless. But even with the disparate parts, it’s impossible to dismiss the story and the performances, both of which provide dependable entertainment.
– Mike Massie