“The Color Purple” is a movie adaptation of the Broadway musical – book by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The movie is written by Marcus Gardley and directed by Blitz Bazawule, a Ghanaian filmmaker who gained fame for directing Beyonce’s musical film “Black is King,” for which he won a Grammy. The story is ultimately based on Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel of the same name. There was also an uneven movie adaptation in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Menno Meyjes.
The plot is a passion play that documents the suffering African-American women endured at the hands of their menfolk and others. Rape, incest, child abuse, domestic violence, and more are the order of the day. Set mainly on the Georgia coast, the movie spans from 1909 to just after the Second World War. While you think this material might not work as the basis for a musical play or film, the trajectory outlined by Norman’s book made it a smash on Broadway and in theatres worldwide. This bodes well for the current movie adaptation.
As the film begins, we are introduced to sisters Celie (Fantasia Barrino) and Nettie (Halle Bailey), who suffer astonishing abuse at the hands of their father Alfonso (Deon Cole) – Celie has already had one child when we meet her and is giving birth to another. Both are the result of being raped by Alonso, and as soon as she has them, the babies are immediately taken away from her. Alfonso then basically sells Celie into Slavery as the wife of Albert “Mister” Johnson (Colman Domingo), who beats her and uses her as his servant, barely acknowledging her presence.
At 140 minutes, the film is overlong, and it is choc-a-block with too many musical numbers – around 20 – most of which are forgettable except Celie’s Beyonce-like closer “I’m Here.” The choreography accompanying the music has a few inspiring moments but is generally underwhelming.
The reason to see this movie is the performances of the two Black women who give Celie the courage to move on with her life. The Blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P.Henson), who loves Celie (and Celie loves her back) – the lesbian theme, which was a central theme in the book, is handled with far more grace and intelligence than it was in the Spielberg movie, although you can still feel that the filmmakers are not exactly comfortable with it – and the astonishing Danielle Brooks, who gives a tour-de-force performance as Sofie, a proud lady who always speaks her mind. Unfortunately, one day, she gives attitude to the wrong people and pays a terrible price for her actions.
The rest of the supporting cast is good. The always-excellent Domingo takes the thankless role of “Mister” and gives his character, a wife-beating caricature, some depth and humor. As Harpo, Mister’s son, Corey Hawkins, brightens up every scene he’s in, Aunjanue Ellis has a few lovely moments (in flashback) as Celie’s deceased mom and Louis Gossett Jr. as one exceptional scene at a breakfast table. As for Barrino, she blossoms as the movie proceeds, coming into her own in the film’s second half when she begins to become the woman she was meant to be. Unfortunately, in early scenes, she is played by a younger actress, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi. The two actresses don’t match up, and the transition is jarring.