The Color Purple releases to theaters on December 25 from Warner Bros.
One of the bigger challenges facing the new musical film version of The Color Purple, inspired by the Broadway stage presentation (an adaptation of Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel), is stepping out of the shadow of the respected and beloved 1985 film, which was directed by Steven Spielberg and featured an incredible cast that included Whoopie Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery.
To my shame I’ve never seen the original 1985 film, but there’s one benefit to that: it has allowed me to come into the new one without any prior baggage, just taking it in completely on its own terms without any comparative analysis.
And I loved it.
In Jim Crow-era rural Georgia, young Celie (Fantasia Barrino-Taylor) is the victim of an ongoing cycle of abuse: raped by her father, robbed of her babies, separated from her sister, and forced to marry “Mister” (Colman Domingo), a cruel farmer who actively despises her and treats her as little better than a slave to rear this children, keep house, and have sex with him at his pleasure.
Celie settles into her hardscrabble life or poverty, cruelty, and abuse for many years, dutifully fulfilling her roles as wife and stepmother, and having little hope for her own future.
But she finds a second act with the help of unexpected friends: The first is her strong-willed daughter-in-law Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the wife of her now-grown stepson Harpo (Corey Hawkins). Sofia’s key trait is a fiery refusal to allow others to disrespect her – not even her husband.
Celie also finds an even unlikelier friend and ally in her husband’s mistress Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a local girl who moved away to the city and became a successful singer and recording artist, but returns home from time to time.
The decades-spanning story has a lot to unpack, but perhaps what’s most remarkable to me (and this might be considered a mild spoiler) is that it’s not a vengeful story, though it has every right to be. Instead it emphasizes redemption and forgiveness, because that’s the kind of strong and wonderful person that Celie is.
The musical aspect of the film does come off as a little uneven to me. There are certainly some good songs – the rollicking “Hell No” is a particular standout – but so much of the film soldiers on as a traditional and serious narrative that when the musical numbers pop in, they’re a little jarring, in an “Oh right, this is a musical” kind of way. Still, the songs do serve a powerful purpose, allowing the characters to provide exposition, state their feelings, and express their most passionate inner thoughts in a way that wouldn’t work in a traditional narrative.
Simply put, this is absolutely recommended viewing – emotionally resonant and strikingly lovely, finding and sharing hope in what seems like hopelessness.