Since Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was first published in 1982, it has been adapted into a film (in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg), a stage musical (in 2005, which ran for three years and toured the country), another musical (a 2015 revival of the original, which ran about half as long but won more Tonys) and now, a new film adaptation directed by newcomer Blitz Bazawule that takes a bit of this and a bit of that from all the previous versions in order to create something as original as it is familiar. Walker’s generational story of the Black American experience is in tact, and this version is also a musical. But while some songs from the stage show remain, more than a dozen have been cut, while Bazawule and co-writers Marcus Gardley and Marsha Norman find several moments to nod to the original film version.
Broadly speaking, The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a woman who is (to put it mildly) put through the ringer every day of her difficult life in the deep south. Spanning the decades between the two world wars, the film covers a lot of ground in its first twenty minutes or so, cluing us in to young Celie’s (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) circumstances: her beloved mother (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) is dead; she works in her father Alfonso’s (Deon Cole) grocery and dry goods store, doing her best to avoid his unpredictable temper and wandering hands; and her one source of happiness is her sister, Nettie (played as a child by Halle Bailey), who is the more beautiful of the two and therefore the more desired by Mister (Colman Domingo), a local widower who needs a new wife to tend his to house and children. Though he asks for Nettie, Alfonso essentially sells Celie to him, sending her from one predatory older man to another while Nettie is forced to run away and fend for herself entirely.
Years pass and Celie (now played by Fantasia Barino) is a mere shell of a woman; Mister’s abuse and neglect has taken its toll. His children are grown and his longtime lover, Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a big star on the Black entertainment circuit, is expected for a visit. Unexpectedly, the two bond as women who can’t live the lives they want for themselves, all on the backdrop of Mister’s son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins) converting the home he used to share with his now-departed wife, Sofia (Danielle Brooks), into a juke joint where Shug is set to perform. Of a younger generation, Sofia and Harpo’s relationship stands in stark contrast to the ones Celia’s been forced into all her life, illustrating for her and us how these things change over time. Through it all, Celie is pining for the sister she hasn’t seen since she was a child, expecting letters from her that never come.
It’s a lot of plot, and in Walker’s 300-page novel, there is room for it all. The stage musical adaptation even seems to be able to make sense of it. But in this version of The Color Purple, where no single scene seems to last longer than 90 seconds, the audience is forced to move at such a breakneck speed through the plot that it’s difficult to keep up with any of it, let alone feel any sense of emotional investment. Though it falls to him to navigate issues like this, it may not precisely be Bazawule’s fault; he’s creating a film based off of a script where scenes apparently progress every few pages or so.
It’s also not the cast’s fault, as this is one of the strongest ensembles in film this year. Danielle Brooks took on the role of Sofia in the 2015 Broadway revival, and she is the standout in this stacked cast, delivering the most lived-in performance and one that resonates well beyond the scenes she steals. As a woman used, abused and left to fend for herself, Fantasia Barino is a strong choice and she certainly does her best, but I for one couldn’t help but wish the great Cynthia Erivo had followed her cast mate Brooks into this film adaptation. Domingo, in his second significant role of the year (following Rustin) proves yet again what a versatile talent he is, even if this version strips Mister of any solo numbers.
As he moves us through the onslaught of scenes, Bazawule make some confusing choices with his approach. There’s an early scene that sees young Celie singing oustide her father’s store one moment to inexplicably wandering through a group of prisoners working in a chain gang the next. Or there’s the rocky start of “I Am Here,” the musical’s most iconic number, that sees a grown Celie and co. dancing with and around rolling racks of the pants she’s decided to make for a living. These moments are nearly balanced out by showstoppers like Shug’s performance at Harpo’s juke joint, but they’re still enough to take us out of the magic of this attempt at an epic.
The Color Purple deals with very difficult, very tragic themes and circumstances, from rape and incest to racism and sexism. It tackles generational trauma and asks hard questions, like what happens when a situation is so dire that the oppressed begin oppressing their own? Above all, however, it’s a celebration of resilience, particularly on the part of women who are trafficked like a commodity, who don’t have autonomy over their own bodies or lives, and who seem to find sisterhood and connection despite it all. Indeed, the film’s final scene is its most moving, one that nearly had me forgetting all the head-spinning chaos that preceded it. In the end, Bazawule’s version of Walker’s classic novel, while not a timeless adaptation of a well-known story, is certainly a new adaptation for our time
The Color Purple is now playing in theaters.