‘The Color Purple’: Alice Walker’s American Classic Soars as a Stirring and Joyful Musical

Some stories do indeed deserve to be retold a few more times. It’s all about giving each interpretation its own voice. Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” is the latest adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which is timeless in the way it spans decades in telling the journey of its Black American female characters. Steven Spielberg famously directed his own rendition of the material in 1985 with powerful results. Now, Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones and Scott Sanders return to produce this 2023 adaption, putting Bazawule in the director’s chair, and turning “The Color Purple” into a musical that culls from Sanders’ Tony Award-winning production which took Walker’s story to Broadway. The result is a joyous film full of music, sorrow and eventual triumph. Bazawule doesn’t just follow the pattern of Spielberg’s movie with songs added in, the narrative also expands and familiar moments take on new dimensions.

Again we are introduced to what begins as the tragic story of Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi), a young girl growing up in the American South of the early 1900s. She suffers abuse from her father who impregnates her and sells off the infants. Her true solace is a bond with her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey). When a single father, Mister (Colman Domingo) comes asking for Nettie’s hand, he’s offered “ugly” Celie. But it’s a brutal, abusive home where Mister unleashes his hidden insecurities and frustrations on Celie, who in turn becomes a repressed, docile woman. As the years pass Celie (now played by Fantasia Barrino) endures. Into town rides Mister’s true love, Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a lively blues singer who was surely too independent and confident for Mister. Shug might just be the one person who begins to push Celie to see herself for who she truly is. Through it all, Celie also waits and hopes to see Nettie again.

Bazawule’s stylish approach carries some of Spielberg’s classic, tear-jerker power. Though, Bazawule has always been an expert visual craftsman. His last film was 2020’s “Black Is King,” a rich tapestry of images for Beyoncé’s “The Lion King” album. Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” has the widescreen energy of a big studio musical production. If Spielberg’s version was moodier and intense, Bazawule’s version prefers sweeping colors and an operatic attitude. The music and songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray are absorbing combinations of gospel, blues and jazz that range from big numbers to quick extensions of a scene. A moment like “Workin’,” where Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) and some buddies sing while building what will become a nightspot where Shug will eventually perform, isn’t essential but pulled off with truly fun choreography. Taraji P. Henson just chews the scenery during “Push Da Button,” crooning and strutting like some lost star from the 1920s.

The strength of Alice Walker’s creations is so strong that the characters still remain even more memorable than the songs. It is irresistible to care for Celie and those around her. Sofia (Danielle Brooks) is the strong-willed woman Harpo has a child with. She later falls into a cruel fate when standing up for her dignity against a local white woman, who gets her arrested and then hires her as a servant. Oprah Winfrey endearingly played this role in Spielberg’s film but Danielle Brooks, who was nominated for a Tony for the same role onstage, has just as much of a presence. She becomes a towering woman cruelly broken by a racist society before finding laughter again. Colman Domingo is more pitiful than Danny Glover’s tragically chilling Mister in the 1985 movie, but summons the necessary ignorant rage. He’s a man generations of women know all too well, representing the kind of misogyny and violence that has long roots. It’s not surprising that Mister’s father, Ol’ Mister (Louis Gossett Jr.) is just an older version of the offspring, bitter and arrogant. Yet, even Ol’ Mister is astonished at the brazenness of Mister bringing Shug under his roof, despite already having a wife.

Fantasia Barrino’s role as Celie is the most challenging because she’s the quiet, subdued center of the whole story. The original film featured Whoopi Goldberg in one of the great screen debuts of the 1980s, delivering a performance that can still make us cry. Barrino is up to the task by giving Celie a few new dimensions. She’s an energetic woman entrapped, who sees in Shug more of a true buddy than the revelatory figure from the first movie. Bazawule’s pacing is at times too brisk to really let these performances breathe. This “The Color Purple” is less sexual and despairing, but it was also that sense of despair that then helped Spielberg deliver those knock-out emotional high notes at the end. Still, Bazawule adds his own flourishes well to certain sections. Now when Mister has to face the consequences of what he’s done, it comes through being left alone, drunkenly pleading for forgiveness amid rain and thunder. This version also has more slapstick comedy. Once Nettie learns about the whereabouts of her sister, with a storyline fans of the story know leads to Africa, this story remains ever so stirring. 

“The Color Purple” ends with a gospel number under sunshine and redemption where hope isn’t lost. If Celie finding the courage to stand and demand her dignity doesn’t move us, what can? How much this movie endures in comparison to the 1985 classic remains to be seen, but there is much to admire and be taken in by. It’s a vibrant testament to the history and legacy of Black American women, with a universal message about the nature of misogyny and its lingering shadow across generations. For Bazawule this may be the breakthrough that announces him as a new director to watch out for, capable of composing on a large canvas moments exhilarating, emotionally devastating and eventually cathartic. Like many family stories, this is a classic tale that can be passed down for years to come, with new voices that never lose what makes it special. 

The Color Purple” releases Dec. 25 in theaters nationwide.