Like Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film version, the new big screen version of “The Color Purple” has the feel of a musical; The difference is the new version. is musical.
The 2005 Broadway hit, which went on several tours, and the 2015 revival, like the first Broadway staging, earned a Tony Award for its female lead: LaChanze first, Cynthia Erivo second. This new film stars the powerful Fantasia Barrino, who replaced LaChanze as Celie in the original Broadway run.
Barrino plays Celie, an adult Georgia woman who is abused, ostracized, but eventually heals, estranged from her sister, and having a heart-pounding reunion decades later. As a girl, the character is played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi. The new film covers 36 years, from 1909 to 1945. Both Mpasi and Barrino are great. And they’re surrounded by triple threats who do their best to elevate the synthetic fabric of this latest adaptation.
For most people, artists will be more than enough. Ghanaian director Blitz Bazawule was a smart choice for this big screen adaptation; visual narrative (see his first feature film) “Kojo’s Tomb” at one point; this is very nice) fits the genre of music very well. Bazawule and Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen establish, enhance and masterfully craft the songs and transitions of time and space, ensuring the flow and brilliance of events. This isn’t exactly what Spielberg was doing nearly 40 years ago, but the soundtrack is a related attempt to beautify and “sell” even the harshest elements of Celie’s life, first imagined in Alice Walker’s charming dream about a 1982 novel. He acts from impulse. After studying at university, I was never the same.
Maybe that’s my problem. I hope to have a similar moving experience. Despite the on-screen talent, the disappointing limitations of this new, fabled “The Color Purple” intent. Like the ’85 film, the new film follows Walker’s narrative (always with its share of fairy-tale elements) by leaning on big numbers (a chain gang routine here, a delicious ’40s-inspired dance number) and soothing solos and duets for Celie and her friends. .
Make no mistake, this is still a story rooted in heartbreaking cycles of emotional abandonment and bleak physical and sexual abuse. But I think the key to the novel’s great success was not to play with its ending – the most comforting wish-fulfillment imaginable – from the beginning. It is almost impossible not to respond to “The Color Purple” and Celie’s adventure in any version. But it’s also possible to wish for a film that was more like real life and real lives, with all their emotional colors, without being too showbiz.
The music didn’t get a lot of critical love on Broadway, but there’s no doubt that its blend of blues, swing, soul, and Broadway’s powerful balladeer fueled an artist’s desire to go to town and come back and go to town again. Again. Siedah Garrett, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray collaborated on some new material that complements songs written for Broadway by Russell, Bray and the late Allee Willis.
The new film also adds the Quincy Jones/Rod Temperton/Lionel Richie tune from the ’85 movie “Miss Celie’s Blues” (“Sister”). This provides not just an introduction, but an introduction to Taraji P. Henson’s Shug Avery: Ziegfeld for Harpo’s Juke Joint, the club once run by Harpo (Corey Hawkins), the difficult Sofia’s boyfriend. A glide over the swamp worthy of . Danielle Brooks) while with Squeak (played by HER).
Harpo’s place is a place where many characters gather, surrounded by temptation, booze and memories. The wonderful Colman Domingo as the brutal abuser Mister takes one look at Shug and sees what he likes; Meanwhile, Shug takes one look at Celie and sees what needs redemption, both sexually and spiritually. So, about that: the Spielberg film has received as much criticism as it deserves for being downplayed, almost erasing the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug.
The stage musical didn’t go there either. By contrast, director Bazawule’s Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation of Marcus Gardley’s screenplay is even more sensitive than Spielberg in terms of this third set of perceived problems. And unless Celie’s sexual life is more fully acknowledged, the ostentatious and carefully designed catharsis feels a little dangerous.
In Spielberg’s version, as Whoopi Goldberg recalled in a 2018 interview, “No one was going to let me and Shug have sex. They just weren’t. They still aren’t in 2023.” A tense, middle-of-the-road approach to “The Color Purple” (“It’s Work Without Really Trying” “A bold warning”), as the lines in “How to Succeed in Life” put it, might mean fewer resentful parties and better box office. But that’s dastardly, and both Alice Walker and her latest translators deserve more of the story.
“The Color Purple” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language)
Running time: 2:21
How to watch: Premieres in theaters December 25
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.