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Strong cast carries remake of “THE COLOR PURPLE” | Our film review

Starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks
Directed by Blitz Bazawule

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel “The Color Purple” is a literary masterpiece. Steven Spielberg’s 1985 cinematic adaptation is an emotional classic and one of the director’s finest. Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” (the big screen version of Marsha Norman’s Broadway musical reinvention) has some excellent moments and a strong cast, but fails to capture the full emotional power of Walker’s book, nor does it reach the heights of Spielberg’s beautifully crafted motion picture.

This is the story of Celie (an excellent Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as a youth and Fantasia Barrino as an adult), a young woman who “escapes” a home where she has given birth to two of her own father’s babies by becoming the wife (property) of Albert, a cruel man referred to as “Mister,” played by Coleman Domingo. As Mister lusts after Celie’s sister, Nettie (Hailie Bailey as a young girl and Ciara as the older incarnation), his advances are rebuffed, and he banishes her from his property, leaving young Celie alone. What follows is a story of women who overcome their circumstances and endure, using their pain to achieve personal victory against those who would oppress them.

Produced by Oprah Winfrey (who starred as Sofia in the 1985 film version), Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, and Scott Sanders, the film certainly has its charms. It couldn’t be considered a failure, but Bazawule’s handle on the material works only in fits and starts.

Through her authentic dialogue and palpable emotions, Alice Walker created a profoundly personal story of early 20th-century African-American women fighting for their voices. Exploring identity, brutal misogyny, sexuality, and even the power of the word of God, Walker’s novel was an intensely moving work of individual and societal struggles told through incredibly well-drawn characters. Bursting with hope and love, Spielberg’s film version is a heartbreaking yet uplifting take that captures most of the essence of Alice Walker’s creation and celebrates the power of Black women.

Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” holds some of the story’s emotional force but occasionally loses its grip. On the Broadway stage, the musical numbers may have hit deeper. Still, in this film’s scope, the singing and dancing overwhelm the drama and render it secondary to the lavishly produced musical numbers. Some thirteen songs from the musical were cut for the film, and while some of the remaining works are good, not one of them can hold a candle to the passionate sentiment found in Walker’s poetic prose.

The picture’s greatest strength is its cast. Bazawule assembled a fine group of actors who (mostly) succeed in recreating Walker’s beloved characters in this musical setting. Danielle Brooks (as Sofia) and especially Taraji P. Henson (as Shug) are absolutely terrific. The two actresses will hopefully receive the Oscar nominations they deserve for their excellent work.

Brooks carries Sofia’s confidence like a weapon, ready to wield it whenever she is confronted with the masked cowardice of the male ego. She is more than just bluster when standing up to Mister (her fiancée Harpo’s father), while her bossy attitude towards her beau comes from a desire for Harpo to be his own man. When the character falls victim to the racism she has
formerly tried to rise above, Brooks sells Sofia’s pain (in even more substantial ways than Winfrey’s great work in the 1985 film) and will break your heart through her movingly truthful performance. The actress is tremendously good and becomes the film’s standout.

Corey Hawkins (an underused talent in modern films) brings a natural sweetness to Harpo, finding humanity and regret in the “sins of the father” consequences he faces. As his poppa, Coleman Domingo does good work, but the ghost of Danny Glover’s explosive performance as Mister haunts his every moment.

Fantasia Barrino works well enough as Celie but doesn’t have the depth to bring off the character’s astonishing arc in exciting ways fully. The actress is good, but does nothing special to stand out.

Taraji P. Henson (one of our best) is on complete fire as Shug Avery. The actress fully inhabits the role, having a great time navigating Shug’s sexy and boisterous personality, but reaches deep when confronting a woman who has been emotionally destroyed by her life choices. As the character eventually becomes Celie’s lover, Shug begins to find her humanity and the die is cast for her (and others) redemption. Henson doesn’t strike a false note in what is one of her most captivating performances to date.

Other actors don’t get the chance to make much of a mark. Oscar winner Louis Gosset Jr. doesn’t have a lot to do as Mister’s father and contributions from Deonte Cole and the great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor are too cliched in their presentations. By the time we get a “blink and you’ll miss her” cameo from Whoopie Goldberg, the moment becomes an eye-rolling act of desperation.

David Alan Grier plays Shug’s intensely holy reverend daddy. The actor is solid, but Buzawule’s direction and Marcus Gardley’s screenplay drain the soulful resonance from their relationship. For those who know, the “God is Trying to Tell You Something” moment between the father and daughter is something to behold in Spielberg’s version. Here, it plays too softly and almost matter-of-fact, unfairly rendering the critical moment quite lifeless.

The screenplay also fails Coleman Domingo by not making Mister’s redemptive epiphany more heartwarming. When it comes, it is underwritten and feels dictated by the script rather than the character’s honest moral awakening. Almost all is forgiven in the tremendously moving finale when the film gives Mister a figurative and literal seat at the table of love and forgiveness. Coleman is strong in this final moment, allowing audiences to experience what makes him one of the most interesting actors working today.

With gorgeously composed imagery from Dan Laustsen, the final scene finds the soul that bleeds through Walker’s novel. It is an incredible sequence of tenderness and understanding. The sins of the characters are washed away in a sunlit baptism of absolution that will have audiences wiping tears from their eyes, and this time, the song is in unison with the emotions.

The Hollywood musical has its place, but for a story as vital and beloved as Alice Walker’s, the constant need to break into song robs the audience of its profound truthfulness. When the music (thankfully) stops, there is an excellent film to be found in Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple.” Unfortunately, the musical numbers take center stage, and the power of Walker’s work becomes cinematically stilted.