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Review: The Uniquely Charming Musical ‘The Color Purple’ Captivates Every Emotion

Review: The Uniquely Charming Musical ‘The Color Purple’ Captivates Every Emotion

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Over fifteen years ago, I experienced the musical Broadway production of The Color Purple starring Fantasia Barrino as Celie. Her eloquent portrayal on stage is just as captivating on the big screen as it was those many years ago. Warner Bros, along with producers Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders, and Quincy Jones, deliver a bold new take on the classic we’ve all come to know and love.

Directed by Blitz Bazawule in his first large scale studio production feature, the filmmaker proves he is certainly not risk-averse as he takes on the daunting task of leading a project of this magnitude and steps into the legacy of a franchise beloved by so many fans. 

The Color Purple opens with telling the story of a young Celie played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi. She’s pregnant, but quickly has to give up her baby boy to the hands of her domineering father (Deon Cole). As you can imagine, this process can result in anxiety for a new mother. Celie’s best friend Nettie (Halle Bailey) comforts her and assures her that her child has been given to God. To which Celie asks, “Then why doesn’t God give them back?”

This sets the stage for what is to come when Celie is separated from the ones she loves. While The Color Purple (1985) is now a story that many of us are familiar with, this musical adaptation (for the most part) stays true to Alice Walker’s 1982 literary vision. However, there are some creative liberties taken that add more nuance and texture to Celie’s psyche and personality when it comes to forgiveness of others as well as moving on from her past. And while this review will not focus on a synopsis of the plot (because frankly you can look at several other reviews for that), what will be scrutinized here are the performances, direction, music, and creative changes that makes this version stand out on its own.

As of this writing, Danielle Brooks and Fantasia Barrino (Sofia and Celie, respectively) are both heavily featured in the awards conversation.  Both are nominated for Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. Brooks delivers one of the most defiantly cathartic performances of her career.

Let me explain. Sofia undergoes an incredibly ambitious arc that develops her character so convincingly that you, as a viewer, get to experience every emotion that Sofia undergoes throughout her journey. You experience her anger, her fear, her sadness, her prodigious sense of humor, and her love for Harpo (Corey Hawkins). Brooks carries all of that throughout the running time of this film with grace, nuance, and charm, not to mention she carries one of the best musical numbers of the film: “Hell No.” Brooks said in an interview with BGN that, “It will officially be the women’s anthem of 2024.” Danielle has had experience marinating into this role, having performed in the revival on Broadway in 2015.  

Another strong performer isn’t in the awards conversation for this film but for his work in another film: Colman Domingo, who plays Mister, up against what Danny Glover did with that role back in 1985. Glover was pretty spectacular, so Domingo had some big shoes to fill. Colman doesn’t disappoint with his brilliant take on a cruel, insensitive, and selfish Mister. Domingo makes the role his own and doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor does he make Mister too vile. 

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At times, Mister comes across as charismatic and, dare I say, endearing. This is before his redemptive arc comes into play. Domingo purposely crafts Mister into a man who is three-dimensional and complex and not some monotonous antagonist to Celie that’s just there to be used as a plot device. Mister also serves as rich fertile ground for this story that serves a bigger purpose that pays off at the end. 

The other awards-favorite, Barrino, our protagonist and lead, is a bright star in this beautiful ensemble cast. Her singing is magical, her dance moves are delightful, and one of the most poignant moments in the film is when she says, “I had a Ma and a Pa who loved me?” That line and her facial expression nearly gutted me. It is at that moment that a culmination of all of the years of abuse, pain, neglect, and rejection just comes to a head, and she realizes for the first time what parental love actually feels like. 

But Celie also experiences a different kind of love. And that’s through Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson). My favorite song is the beautiful ballad duet she shares with Barrino called “What About Love?” The song is so sweet, it will certainly bring tears to your eyes. When the song ends, the two share a tender kiss on screen for several seconds, which is in contrast to the 1985 version, in which it is a bit more brief and muted in tone.

One particular scene that will get everyone talking is the dinner scene toward the third act of the film. Great use of direction here by Blitz because I’m certain this was likely a scene that wasn’t easy to construct. It’s the scene where Shug Avery comes back to town as a newlywed with Grady (Jon Batiste) and tells Mister that Celie is coming back to Memphis with her. Now that Celie is aware that Mister was keeping Nettie’s letters from her, she’s brimming with anger. Meanwhile, Sofia is happy to be home, but also sad that she was gone for so long. The scene is filled with a myriad of emotions — just like Sofia’s journey, in one scene alone, you will laugh, cry, and feel anger all at once. And every performer gives all that they have. 

As the scene ends, Mister sits at one end of the table along with his father Ol’ Mister (Louis Gossett Jr.). The camera just sits there with this 2-shot. There is an irony of these two wretched men who only have themselves left trying to feel whole in this world.

As mentioned before, there is a forgiveness component that occurs in this story, but it makes sense for Celie and adds more integrity to her story and, without giving too much away, you will understand why. The Color Purple is a feel-good movie that is a beautiful addition to what the 1985 classic offered us. 

The Color Purple releases nationwide in theaters December 25, 2023.

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