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“The Color Purple” Sings Mixed Notes

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 24th, 2023

Film poster: “The Color Purple”

The Color Purple (Blitz Bazawule, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple was first adapted for the screen in 1985, courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. Then, in 2005, it made it to Broadway as a musical, written by Marsha Norman. Now, in 2023, the story comes to us once more as a movie, this time an adaptation of the previous adaptation. It sings and sometimes swings, sure to liven the Christmas holiday for fans, old and new alike.

Blitz Bazawule (Black Is King)—born the year the novel came out—is at the helm now, leading a cast of eager performers through the familiar story, which follows the initially rough life of protagonist Celie, married off to an abusive husband after first suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her father. After a series of ups and downs, she eventually finds peace, love, happiness and prosperity.

l-r: Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino, and Danielle Brooks in THE COLOR PURPLE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Despite the complicated legacy of the original film, I loved Whoopi Goldberg’s performance in the lead, as well as those of Margaret Avery, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey. There was also something remarkably ahead-of-its-time about the 1985 movie’s treatment of queer issues, given the lesbian subplot. It was one thing for a narrative like that to exist in a book, quite another for it to appear in a studio movie.

I never saw the musical, but I assume that the things that here differ from the source text come from that version. Not all are for the better, including a slight minimizing of the queerness and a subsequent greater emphasis on the Christianity. Jesus makes things better for some, I suppose, but I was a fan of the growth of personal agency before, sans savior. Finally, not all songs are created equal; some shine more than others, which makes for an uneven experience.

Colman Domingo in THE COLOR PURPLE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Fantasia Barrino (aka Fantasia) stars as the adult Celie, supported by a fine cast that includes Danielle Brooks (Clemency), Colman Domingo (Rustin), Corey Hawkins (In the Heights), and Taraji P. Henson (The Best of Enemies), among many others. After Celie ends up with hubby Mister (Domingo), she does her best not to weep her days away, missing not only her departed sister but also those children, born from the forced unions with her father, shipped off to parts unknown. Somehow, out of this misery, she takes solace in everyday tasks as the years move slowly forward,

The narrative still tackles some issues related to the virulent racism in America’s early 20th century, though the focus is mainly on the Black community and conflicts within it. Musical numbers burst forth at intervals. Somehow, these don’t always add to the story’s emotional weight. Nevertheless, the final number proves powerfully poignant, ending on a magnificent note of resounding meaning. So even if I miss Whoopi (who makes a cameo appearance in a small role as a midwife), and even if I regret some of the mise-en-scène and thematic emphases here, the new The Color Purple still has much to offer.

The final scene of THE COLOR PURPLE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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