Producers: Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders and Quincy Jones Director: Blitz Bazawule Screenplay: Marcus Gardley Cast: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Gabriella Wilson “H.E.R.”, Halle Bailey, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Louis Gossett Jr., Ciara, Jon Batiste, David Alan Grier, Deon Cole, Tamela Mann, Stephen Hill and Elizabeth Marvel Distributor: Warner Bros.
For what it is—a screen adaptation of a Broadway musical—Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” is very well done. It’s expertly cast with performers who can handle both the drama and the musical numbers, and while one could argue whether the visual style, which borrows from that of Steven Spielberg’s non-musical 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, is appropriate, it’s certainly expertly realized by the technical craftspeople—production designer Paul Denham Austerberry, costumer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck and cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who collaborates with choreographer Fatima Robinson and editor Jon Poll to ensure that the ensemble dances are captured in full-body splendor, without excessive panning and cutting.
If bringing Broadway pizzazz to the big screen were all that mattered, Bazawule’s film would have to be chalked up as a rousing success. After all, many movie versions of better-known musicals have proven stilted and tired. “The Color Purple” doesn’t.
But there’s a larger issue, one that carries over from the stage version (or versions, since the 2015 revival differed considerably from the 2005 original—though both had long runs). That’s whether the story of abuse lends itself to musical treatment, or at least this kind of musical treatment. Dark tales have been musicalized before, of course, in both opera and theatre; but the ones that worked have added music suited to their darkness. In this case, the score—mostly that of the Broadway show with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray—is at odds with the drama rather than enhancing it: its formulaic nature is incongruous beside the traumatic violence occurring around it.
A similar observation can be made about the film’s look. Like Spielberg’s movie, this “Color” is glossy, with images so impeccably composed that they neuter the cruelty they’re showing. The essential problem is that both the earlier film and this one sanitize the grim reality of the story being told, making it go down more easily than it should. But in this case the music exacerbates the situation.
Still, even in the bowdlerized telling that Marcus Gardley has prepared from the book, Meeno Meyjes’s screenplay for Spielberg and Marsha Norman’s Broadway text, “The Color Purple” can’t help but retain the power of the novel to some extent. The brutality inflicted on young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) by her presumed father Alfonso (Deon Cole) and then by Albert, or “Mister” (Colman Domingo), to whom he turns her over—the rape, the separation from her children and, later, her beloved sister Nettie (Halle Bailey)—is all here, as is her continuing mistreatment in Mister’s misogynist household as a grown woman (Fantasia Barrino). Even Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), the woman who found independence through her music, must contend with ostracism from her father Samuel (David Alan Grier), a rigid preacher. The message of black male toxicity and cruelty toward women in the early twentieth-century American South is undeniably there, if clothed in Spielbergian visuals. The story of Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the uncompromising woman who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), expanded from Spielberg’s treatment, adds another element to the tragedy, the endemic racism that led to social brutalization, even if it’s encumbered by the twittering imbecility of Miss Millie (Elizabeth Marvel) as the white woman who takes advantage of her.
And yet the women’s interlocking stories all end with them overcoming their trials; “The Color Purple” is, finally, a comedy in the classical sense. But here too the narrative takes an easy road. Celie’s change of fortune comes in part through a change in her attitude, but mostly as a result of coincidences that have a deus ex machina quality—a revelation about her parentage, an unexpected inheritance, a backstory about Nettie and Celie’s lost children that can’t help but strain credulity. Equally implausible are the abrupt changes of heart in male characters—Mister most obviously, but Samuel as well—that are integral to the women’s happy endings (expressed in a big communal sing-along that puts the intimacy of Spielberg’s close in the shade). Ultimately these narrative issues don’t derive from the adaptations, but from the novel itself, but the adaptation styles worsen them.
So we’re left awaiting a version of “The Color Purple” that does real justice to the misery and viciousness that permeates much of the story Walker chose to tell. Spielberg’s didn’t, and by adding Broadway-style musical numbers to a narrative that’s pretty much relentlessly grim over its first two-thirds, Bazawule’s doesn’t either.
But if you’re willing to go along with the premise that the story of the brutalization of black women in early twentieth-century Georgia should be told in a fashion that maximizes its triumphant, feel-good possibilities despite one’s doubts about such an approach—and adds a lot of toe-tapping ensemble numbers and contrastingly heart-tugging solos to the mix—it’s hard to imagine it better done. Bazawule and his technical team put on an almost brazen exhibition of pure showmanship, and Kris Bowers adds a background score that accentuates the heart-tugging.
And the cast is extraordinary. Barrino, who succeeded LaChanze during the original Broadway run, makes Celie intensely sympathetic, and boasts vocal power to spare. Brooks, who played the role in the 2015 stage revival, makes Sofia’s tragedy palpable, helped by the more expansive treatment of the character’s imprisonment. Henson is utterly charismatic as the woman both Mister and Celie are entranced by (though the nature of the relationship between the women is treated very gingerly), and her delivery of Shug’s musical numbers would stop the show if it were on stage.
Among the men, Domingo certainly stands out as the odious Mister, though even he can’t persuade us of the character’s sudden transformation at the close. Hawkins is fine as his more savory son, and Louis Gossett Jr. deserves a nod as his perhaps even more loathsome father.
As a Broadway-style adaptation of Walker’s novel, this is about as expert a piece as one could expect. Whether the material was suitable for such an adaptation is another matter.