I wrestled with whether or not I should finally see Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple, the 1982 novel written by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker in the form of letters between Celie - a poor African-American girl in the early 1900s - and God, as it has remained one of the bigger holes in my attempts at completing Spielberg's filmography. Given Blitz Bazawule's new film was based on the 2005 theatrical production that turned Walker's work into a full-fledged musical though, I decided I'd write about this new film from that perspective, which is to say, one's first encounter with the material in any form. To this extent, Bazawule's film is both what I expected it to be given the context clues around the story while also being rather surprising in who its targets are and where its objectives lie. I will be interested to see how this latest adaptation differs from Spielberg's not only due to the fact it is sprinkled with musical numbers and is generally of a lighter tone than is maybe suitable for the material, but largely (mostly) for the perspective from which it is presented and told. There has of course been much discussion over the last few years as to whether Spielberg, a Jewish white male, was the right person to best depict the lives of African American women in rural Georgia during this time period to which the answer is obviously no, but with the introduction of Bazawule's vision into the fold the ways in which these iterations compare and contrast will certainly make for an interesting case study.

As for the quality of Bazawule's production, it is bursting with life at every turn. As a straight, white male myself who has lived in the South the majority of his life and been conditioned to expect a certain tone to accompany slave dramas or, in the case of The Color Purple, post-Civil War era stories it was both unexpected and kind of astonishing exactly how strong of a pulse coursed through the film's veins from the opening moments in which young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) sing "Huckleberry Pie" while suspended above the Georgia Coast in a large oak tree dripping with moss. Then there is the arrival of the assertive Sofia (Danielle Brooks) in a true, star-making turn (at least for those who didn't already adore her) along with so many other facets that make Celie's journey of self-discovery continuously rewarding. And that is ultimately what this is, a journey through the life of this woman who was continuously taken advantage of and was never educated enough to know the degree to which others used her; like, uneducated to the point that when someone tells her, "I'll be back before you can spell Mississippi," she probably wasn't exaggerating. Whether it be Celie's father, Alfonso (Deon Cole), who took away her children just as soon as she'd given birth (and if what I've read of the original text is true, is responsible for those children as well, which this adaptation glazes over) who then promises her hand to a farmer simply referred to as Mister (Colman Domingo) who also abuses her physically, sexually, and verbally, there is no respite for Celie except for the company of Nettie, which Mister also takes away rather swiftly. Instead, Celie is expected to take care of Mister's house, his dinner, and his prior children cutting off her contact with any of her own family and by and large the outside world altogether. 

Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) find some small joys in rural Georgia in 1909.
© Warner Bros

At the half hour mark the film exchanges Mpasi for Fantasia Barrino in the Celie role as time jumps forward to 1917. Up to this point the film has largely centered around the unrelenting mistreatment of Celie and the relationship drama of Harpo (a wonderful Corey Hawkins), Mister's son, and Brooks' Sofia and their shaky status. Harpo first builds Sofia a house on the section of land his grandfather granted him on his father's farm, but when Sofia makes it clear she will not be as submissive as Celie has been to Mister, things begin to fall apart. They separate and Harpo contemplates turning their house into a juke joint. It is at this time that Taraji P. Henson's Shug Avery arrives on the scene. A blues singer and Mister's long-time mistress, Henson's arrival signals something of a turning point both thematically, but almost as importantly for the pacing of the film - tonally. Avery shakes things up as she stays true to Mister's expectations of her, but also begins a friendship and develops a genuine affection for Celie whose abuse and unawareness of the world is apparent after only a few exchanges. The character of Shug Avery as a character would be a stick of dynamite to throw into any narrative, but like Sofia she is a woman who fights and who is intent to not allow the expectations of the past to influence how she conducts herself in this new world. To that end, Henson's first big musical number in "Push Da Button" which is then swiftly followed by a duet with Fantasia in "What About Love?" appropriately feel like the crescendos of the first act as they properly propel the narrative forward. Henson's presence and these songs rearrange and re-engage audience's expectations and attentions before dropping the revelation that propels us into the last half of the film.

In short, Avery's presence creates a tension not just between the trio of she, Celie, and Mister, but through her actions and how they reverberate throughout the community. This speaks to another aspect of the film that both Bazawule and the cast cultivate; the community amongst one another and in the atmosphere they create. We become entrenched in this world and in the lives of the ensemble that populates it. The statements Walker was utilizing each character to make are somewhat evident in terms of the treatment of not only black people at this point in time, but more specifically black women both as they stood in relation to the white community and to certain men, but the story as a whole is so compelling and the characterizations are such that the messaging is more intrinsic than overbearing. Celie's story is a redemptive one but is so despite how she was treated not because of it which is the point - if this interpretation is true to the spirit of the novel - of what Walker was trying to say about our existence and survival in general. Furthermore, the title comes from a moment between Avery and Celie as they discuss the presence and intentions of God in their lives and in the world. Avery argues that God would be upset if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it which lends itself to this idea of the regularly unappreciated receiving their proper value. That is the story of Celie. While so much of these themes as well as the musical numbers fall on Celie's shoulders it is important that she be portrayed by someone who can convey the power necessary to convince us of her own convictions, but also be believable in her timid demeanor and simple perceptions. That all to say, Bazawule's film and the depth it possesses owe much to Fantasia for what is more often than not, a very restrained and measured performance that brings us her unimaginable pain as well as her sincere joy through more than just the songs but on every inch of her face.          

A grown-up Celie (Fantasia) finds a friend and safe haven in blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson in The Color Purple.
© Warner Bros

It was no surprise to learn then, that both Fantasia and Brooks were reprising their roles in this film after having played them on Broadway (not at the same time, though) as both seem to grasp the severity of their character's impact on the overall arc with the understanding that they - along with Henson's charismatic (and sympathetic) portrayal of Avery - are what form the pillars of the story and give life to the declarations - or more, the rebuttals - Walker was originally stating. As the narrative spans multiple decades and engulfs us in the journey of these characters the big question mark around this iteration seemed to be with the musical aspect. Though the theatrical production seemingly was well-received and won plenty of awards (at least that's what some quick googling tells me) there were questions from my (having never seen this story before) perspective that questioned the tonality of the song and dance numbers and how they might weave in and out of a story I could only venture to guess dealt in fairly heavy ideas. While a few of the songs certainly stood out ("Miss Celie's Pants" brought a smile to my face) the weakest part of this stage musical turned film was in fact some of the staging as it feels a little safe, especially in the musical numbers, which is somewhat surprising given Bazawule previously directed Beyonce's 2020 visual album Black is King. There are certain aspects of the film that seem to settle into a default mode in terms of conveying the story rather than creatively coming up with ways to integrate the film's themes into the visual cues which, again, is surprising given the opportunities the songs allow for in terms of creative storytelling as well as how much of a visual storytelling mechanism music videos are. That said, nearly every other element of the film really worked in bringing me into this world and along on this journey. I have no idea what the legacy of the film will be and I won't pretend I even have a guess, but if we are meant to judge films based on how they make us feel, The Color Purple absolutely earns every elated emotion and joyful tear it is sure to elicit with, if nothing else, the final climactic moments that capture the true heart and significance of this story in a single frame.

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