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The Color Purple Review: An Engaging and Heartfelt Epic Musical

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Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple (Warner Bros.)

Expectations are often everything when it comes to remakes, and that’s doubly true when it’s not one but three beloved originals being used as source material. The Color Purple first debuted as a novel by Alice Walker in 1982 before being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg three years later, which earned eleven Oscar nominations and helped bolster the careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The 2005 Broadway musical version of the story scored eleven Tony nominations and an equally well-received revival a decade later.

Now, the musical arrives on the big screen from director Blitz Bazawule, and it’s a rousing production with plenty of passion and personality.

The film covers a great deal of time, beginning with the teenage years of its protagonist Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi), who has given birth to two children from her father Alfonso (Deon Cole), who has then cruelly given them away. Celie relies on the love of her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) more than anything, and has her ripped away too when Celie is married off to the extremely unkind and abusive Mister (Colman Domingo), who banishes Nettie when she rejects his advances.

Years later, Celie (Fantasia Barrino) struggles to find happiness in her very isolating life, but sees glimmers of hope in visitors like jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) and Mister’s daughter-in-law Sofia (Danielle Brooks), who knows how to defend herself from men who try to take advantage of her.

This is an audacious undertaking, not only because of the previous iterations of the material, but also because there’s so much of it. Subplots include Avery’s complicated relationship with her priest father (David Alan Grier) and Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) starting a juke joint. While the film runs 140 minutes, it’s still difficult to fit all that in neatly, and, on top of that, there are numerous musical numbers. The tragic nature of the makes buoyant songs a tricky tone to balance, but, fortunately, this production handles it very well.

The Color Purple is a feast for the eyes, brimming with color and dazzling set pieces. Production designer Paul D. Austerberry assures a coherent transition from the stage to the screen, with the building of Harpo’s establishment his crowning achievement. The rooms and homes feel appropriately claustrophobic, preventing Celie from truly experiencing the world, and the process of opening it up for her is a visual marvel.

Costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck ensures everyone has a distinctive and memorable look, beginning with Netite’s signature hat that plays a strong role in Celie’s comforting memories of her sister. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen paints a landscape both stifling and impossibly vast, using the camera to oscillate between Celie’s changing perspectives on her situation and the world as a whole.

Preserving some of the show’s Broadway cast is another winning creative choice. Barrino is a particularly fantastic find, making her film debut after a successful music and stage career, and she infuses so much heart and spirit into this ensemble piece that she can almost carry it all by herself. Brooks, a television veteran of Orange is the New Black who earned a Tony nomination for playing Sofia on stage, is exceptional and commands all of her scenes. Domingo, who delivers a much gentler performance in another film this awards season, Rustin, finds nuance in Mister’s cruelty. Henson is a welcome presence as always, and there are more great finds in the cast, including musician H.E.R. in her first film role.

While it is possible some audiences may not fully appreciate the mixture of misery and melody that defines this film, and others will find it impossible not to compare to what’s come before, it’s hard to deny the emotional impact of this film, which is best experienced on a large screen in a crowded theater. It’s an immersion into another time that doesn’t feel nearly as far away as it should, with its technical aspects worthy of tremendous praise. It’s a musical that absolutely deserves the big-screen treatment, and the result is a feat of an epic movie musical. 

Grade: B+

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, TIFF, Tribeca, and SXSW, and was on a series of road trips across the United States with his wife, Arielle, before they moved to Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for Above the Line, Awards Radar, AwardsWatch, Below the Line News, CinemaDailyUS.com, The Film Experience, Film Factual, and Gold Derby.
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