The Color Purple: showstopping musical adaptation is determined to accentuate the positive

Blitz Bazawule’s vibrant, ambitious movie-musical brings Alice Walker’s novel to life with rousing gospel numbers, favouring an escapist uplift that may unsettle admirers of the beloved, far bleaker book.

Fantasia Barrino as Celie in The Color Purple (2023)

There’s a famous line in Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Color Purple that’s repeated in the Steven Spielberg-directed screen version of 1985. When the novel’s browbeaten heroine Celie first comes face-to-face with chanteuse Shug Avery, the woman her abusive husband Mister has always loved, and that she herself will fall for, a drunken Shug takes one look at her and giggles, “You sure is ugly!” For Celine, it’s confirmation, even if Shug will soon take it back, of her four defining disadvantages: she’s poor, she’s Black, she’s a woman, and she’s no looker.  

This insult is conspicuous by its absence in Blitz Bazawule’s “bold new take” (as per the film’s upbeat tagline), based on the musical stage adaptation of successful 2005 and 2015 Broadway productions respectively. Not that this version elides the horrors of Celie’s life in rural 1900s Georgia – impregnated as a teen by her own (step-)father, her two babies given away, then separated from her beloved sister Nettie, and sold into a violent marriage – that precede decades-later, hard-won redemption and reconciliation with her loved ones; but the sheer brute ugliness of these circumstances are regularly deflected by a relentless determination to accentuate the positive.  

This is apparent from the film’s very first scaled-up musical number, rousing gospel scene-setter, ‘Mysterious Ways’ (that’s certainly one way to refer to the Lord’s grim plans for Celie). Bazawule, a musician-filmmaker and co-director with Beyoncé of concept film Black is King (2020), alongside choreographer Fatima Robinson, gracefully connect the drama to the songs with sinuous camera and dance moves. They harness the musical’s smart blend of gospel and blues, big band, jazz, and even tap-dancing showtunes to lift the characters, and the audience, to their feet. It’s a “say amen, everybody” approach. 

The overall, very deliberate effect, then, repeatedly skews towards escapist uplift, long before Celie’s own life starts its upward trajectory. This may unsettle admirers of the beloved, far bleaker book. Presumably Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley mean no slight to Walker, nor Spielberg’s earlier effort (for one, he and one of his 1985 actors, Oprah Winfrey, are co-producers here, and his Celie, Whoopi Goldberg, appears in a deft cameo).  

Still, if one is to reimagine the entire project, there’s much to admire in the vibrant, thoughtful approach, amounting to much more than simply dialling in tried-and-tested theatrical crowd-pleasers. Indeed, around a dozen-plus stage numbers have been shelved, others reshuffled, with some new songs, including the buoyant pop-soul ‘Keep On Movin’’ added. And whereas Walker’s novel unfolds through Celie’s heartfelt letters to God and, later, her sister (and vice versa), Gardley cannily keeps Celie’s point of view by frequently deploying these fantastical interludes as figments of her pro-active imagination. 

Chain gang pickaxe blows and women’s washboards in the creek become rhythmic percussion, and Celie and Shug become Technicolor-esque paramours inside the lavish, monochrome Hollywood screen musical they’re watching. It’s a centring of Black experience in a historic cinematic tradition that’s been – bar the near-erased canon of pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux – long-denied. Moreover, Bazawule is forging more recent connections too. The coastal locations and teen sisters’ white dresses look to form a cinematic kinship with another film about early twentieth-century Southern Black sisterhood, Julie Dash’s seminal Daughters of the Dust (1991).   

Such ambitions would count for little if the film didn’t deliver on its own terms. Showstoppers like force-of-nature Sofia’s defiant ‘Hell, No’ or Shug’s gleefully lascivious ‘Push Da Button’ still pack a punch, in no small part to the cast delivering them. Fantasia Barrino as Celie and Danielle Brooks as Sofia, both repeating their Broadway roles, emphatically express their characters’ sorrow and joy in and out of song. Taraji P. Henson nails Shug’s conflicted nature, an unrepentant firecracker in public, but privately desperate for her minister father’s forgiveness. Colman Domingo’s Mister may not get a big number, but he’s a fully fleshed-out antagonist here, his own past traumas contributing to, though never excusing, his vile actions. 

Offering a new hue to an iconic story, it’s understandable for The Color Purple to highlight themes of female empowerment and emancipation. But some wounds are too long endured for even music’s healing power to conceal. 

 ► The Color Purple is in UK cinemas from 26 January.