Review: ‘The Color Purple’

Fantasia Berrino And Danielle Brooks Ignite Blitz Bazawule’s Joyous Musical Remake

You don’t mess with The Color Purple in my family. It’s one of those films (alongside The Bodyguard) that would play constantly in my grandparents’ household for a time, and they would probably be turning over in their graves over the idea of a remake of any kind, much less a glitzy, show-stopping musical. First-time director Blitz Bazawule’s took on a gargantuan task with this adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, not just stylistically but in overcoming preconceived notions by traditionalists.

However, those same traditionalists will want to give this one a try. The Color Purple is indeed ambitious, vibrant, and brash, a unique blend of stage musical, Hollywood blockbuster, and electrifying music video. No surprise given Bazawule’s background as a visual artist and director on Beyonce’s Black is King. He reinvigorates a familiar story of spirituality, forgiveness, family, and strength to create something that has all of the comforts of the 1985 classic film, but with new energy that stands alone on its own two feet. With Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Quincy Jones aboard as producers, this version of The Color Purple keeps its roots to the original while looking forward to the future.

It doesn’t take long for Bazawule to put all of his cards on the table. The film begins with 14-year-old Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi), pregnant with the child of her domineering father (Deon Cole). Nonetheless, Celie finds happiness singing in the trees with her sister, Nettie (The Little Mermaid‘s Halle Bailey), the only person who truly gets her. Before long, the screen has exploded with a rousing musical number. The film moves easily, confidently from glossy song and dance numbers to displays of fairy tale fantasy, like when Celie performs the song “She Be Mine” at the loss of her child, given away by her father shortly after birth.

Soon, Celie herself is given away to the monstrous Mister, brought to life by Colman Domingo. The Rustin star paints Mister as a brutish, self-centered man; a charming bully who imparts the same traits to his son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) who is trying to start a life of his own. With years having passed, the role of Celie is taken over by Fantasia Barrino, reprising the part she played in the Broadway musical. In the beginning stages, Barrino’s performance is quiet, reserved, and so too is The Color Purple. It would be charitable to say the movie is a bit sluggish for a while.

But then, a shining beacon of light appears when Danielle Brooks arrives in the role of Sophia, once occupied by Oprah herself. The fearless and fearsome, quick-witted Sophia isn’t afraid of any ol’ man, and she begins to show Celie how to have confidence in herself. When Sophia belts out her rendition of “Hell, No!” after Harpo strikes her, it’s like the film has entered an entirely new world, one where a chorus of strong, resilient women refuse to be held down any longer. Sophia’s arc is one of the most devastating and well-rounded. It’s a flashy part, one that allows the talented Brooks a chance to shine, while also showing what she can do on multiple levels. Sophia goes through her share of tragedy, too, but emerges from it on the other side thanks to the support of Celie and others.

It’s a lesson that Celie has to learn for herself, too. And another who aids in that is Taraji P. Henson as the glamorous performer and Mister’s part-time lover, Shug. Capturing the screen with a ferocity that only Henson can bring, she fires up a juke joint and helps Celie escape from her harsh reality. When the two escape to catch a movie, they literally step inside of it for a balad duet number right out of Old Hollywood. As the two move in perfect rhythm with one another in this fantastical realm, in reality they have become one romantically, sharing a kiss that is more overtly passionate than the muted one in 1985 when such things were rarely seen in major studio movies.

While all of the performances are strong, The Color Purple would never hold up if not for Fantasia Barrino. After a slow start where Fantasia’s Celie is so timid as to barely speak, we only get to see how the lack of love has kept her in the shadows. But as Celie starts to build confidence in herself, so too does Fantasia’s performance open up and we experience the full range of her musical gifts, as well as her notable skills as an actress. It’s a heavy burden carrying the amount of pain that Celie bears, but it makes it more inspiring when she begins to speak up for herself and fight back. Having begun to learn what love truly is, Celie has no qualms standing up to Mister, and standing up for the people she loves. The dinner scene, in which Celie wishes a dire end to Mister’s life, while navigating the return of Shug, an escape to Memphis, and Sophia’s return from prison, encompasses a jumble of emotions that Fantasia nails at every moment.

The Color Purple is ultimately a movie about forgiveness, and refusing to let the pains of the past destroy your future happiness. I would also suggest to those who are refusing to see this magical, uplifting movie because of loyalty to the original that they should get over it. You’re only denying yourself one of the best movie experiences of the year. And you might find that The Color Purple can exist in multiple ways and be enjoyed in each and every one.

The Color Purple opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

 

REVIEW OVERVIEW
The Color Purple
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-the-color-purpleYou don't mess with The Color Purple in my family. It's one of those films (alongside The Bodyguard) that would play constantly in my grandparents' household for a time, and they would probably be turning over in their graves over the idea of a...