12/27/2023 THE COLOR PURPLE Area Movie Theatres
When I first read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I was overwhelmed by its powerful emotional impact. By using a first-person narrative that increased in perplexity and clarity as its heroine grew and learned, the book took us into the mind of its narrator, helping us see and feel everything Celie did, sharing her (many) traumas and (few) joys and her ultimate triumph.
When Spielberg’s film of the book came out, I was greatly disappointed. I thought his over-emotional direction (and its every-moment-underscored-with syrup soundtrack) diluted the power of the story, and made the final triumph seem contrived. (To be honest, I haven’t seen it since its release; perhaps I should, if only to see if my disappointment “holds up.”)
Then, in 2004, a musical version premiered at the Alliance Theatre, and my response was muted but generally favorable. When it reached Broadway with a wagonload of revisions, then toured back through town at the Fox Theatre, the show found its musical footing and even excelled.
Now a stylized movie of the musical is here for your viewing pleasure.
Fans of the show will notice many changes, all of which benefit this movie. Gone are the church-lady “Greek Chorus,” which irritated me from the start – though the opening number makes a nod toward them. A whopping 13 numbers from the show have been cut, and a few added, including “Miss Celie’s Blues,” which was sung by
Shug Avery in Spielberg’s 1985 film. One new song that “sings” to me is the rhythmic “Workin’” sung by a chorus of men as they build Harpo’s shack, only to be interrupted by a chorus of women, showing us who does the “real work” in this ethos. Most of the remaining numbers are shortened and all seem organically originating in Celie’s imagination.
More happily, there are movie-musical moments that overwhelm and hit with a gut punch, especially Shug Avery’s “Push da Button,” Celie’s eleven-o’clock number “I’m Here,” and the breathtakingly emotional finale, bathed in southern sunset, good food and family-community unity.
Here, Mister’s climactic “conversion” seems not only motivated, but amply foreshadowed and justified. It helps that Colman Domingo gives Mister a childish petulance, a failing farm, and a hostile father (a character not in the stage version, here cruelly embodied by an unrecognizable Louis Gossett Jr.) from which all his earlier cruelties seem to derive.
And the energetic choreography (by Fatima Robinson, who criminally gets no credit on the movie’s IMDB page) is a musical geek’s delight, brilliantly driving the “big numbers” even as it evokes both correct period expectations and hints at modern hip-hop style.
Visually, this is a stunningly smart film. Credit production designer Paul D. Austerberry and cinematographer Dan Lausten) for making the ramshackle huts, the moldering Savannah swamps and the barren weed-filled fields worthy of Shug Avery’s optimism and joy and love of “the color purple.” Time’s passage is indicated not only by year-labelling titles, but by visual and design elements that evoke each year, each era, each change in fortune. Director Blitz Bazawule is a tyro talent to watch!
As Celie, Fantasia Barrino is nothing short of brilliant. I had a few reservations about her vocal range when she headlined the 2008 tour, but here they have all vanished. Her voice seems to have matured beautifully, and, when she belts out “I’m Here,” she thrills as much as she did live on stage.
Taraji P. Henson is a Shug Avery to remember, bringing her A-List talent to her songs as much as to her characterization. Also memorable is the aforementioned Colman Domingo and Louis Gossett Jr. as Mister and Ol’ Mister, Danielle Brooks as Sofia, Corey Hawkins as Harpo, and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and Halle Bailey as the young Celie and Nettie. Also watch for Atlanta’s Brad Raymond as Big Slim and Whoopi Goldberg as a midwife in a quick blink-and-you’ll miss it sequence.
In the final analysis, this is a welcome adaptation of a show that began domestically here in Atlanta. It lives or dies on how much we can get inside of Celie’s head. The revisions all sharpen its focus and widen its emotional range. More to the point, musical paradigms make the underscored emotional extremes believable, credible, and easily empathizable, much more so than in Spielberg’s version. That a story so imbued with faith and religion and praise-to-God’s-gifts does not make this to-the-core-atheist roll his eyes is an impressive testament to its story-telling power.
Indeed, Fantasia Barrino more than matches the power and gut-wrenching highs of prior Celies LaChanze and Jeanette Bayardelle. She brings the character to life, opening up Celie’s experiences and world in every way imaginable, making her story as wrenching and triumphant as any I have ever seen. Her performance strikes all the same chords in my head and heart that Alice Walker’s novel did all those decades ago.
You would yourself a disservice to let it pass you by.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com #TheColorPurple #AliceWalker #FantasiaBarrino)
Add this movie to the list of stage-to-screen transfers that seem to erupt every December:
The Whale, West Side Story, Fences, Cats (Yeah, I Know), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Greatest Showman and Frozen (okay, originals not adaptations but still…), Into the Woods, August: Osage County, Rent, Phantom of the Opera (perhaps the most underrated movie of an overrated musical), Les Misérables, Nine, etc etc etc. I suspect In the Heights was released in July only to underscore its sweltering ambiance.