The Color Purple (2023)

‘Color Purple’ remake can’t top original

Fans of “The Color Purple” keep hoping that one of these millennia Hollywood will finally get Alice Walker’s celebrated tale of strong, persevering, uninhibited women right. Director Blitz Bazawule comes close with his adaptation of Marsha Norman’s 2005 musical version. But it suffers from the same timidity that hindered Walker’s story in both its Broadway incarnation and in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 blockbuster that made Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey megastars.

In taking their shot, Bazawule and first-time screenwriter Marcus Gardley significantly suppress the novel’s celebration of lesbian love and play up the victimization of Black women by male partners who treat them more like slaves than significant others. I’ve never understood why the entertainment industry doesn’t bat an eye when a female is being beaten and raped on screen but recoils at the suggestion of the same body being pleasured by another woman. But I digress.

So, what’s the movie like? Well, it’s extremely well-acted, with Taraji P. Henson as the consummate diva, Shug Avery, and Danielle Brooks reprising her Broadway role as the irascible Sofia. Alas, they are so utterly dynamic, that they repeatedly overshadow the film’s de facto star, Fantasia Barrino, as the much put-upon Celie. In her acting debut, the “American Idol” champ flashes the formidable singing prowess we’ve come to expect. But her skills as a thespian render the character little more than a punching bag for her creepy, troglodyte hubby, Mister (a superb Colman Domingo from “Rustin”), who grudgingly paid “a cow and a couple of eggs” to Celie’s incestuous daddy (Deon Cole) for her hand.

Her situation brightens a bit when Celie’s sexually abused teenage sister, Nettie (“The Little Mermaid’s” Halle Bailey), comes to live with her and Mister and the drunken, guitar-picker’s three unruly kids. But once Nettie rebuffs Mister’s lecherous advances, she’s sent packing. Anyone who has read the novel or seen the play or Speilberg movie knows the lingering question is whether or not Celie will ever see Nettie again.

In the meantime, Celie undergoes a major metamorphosis under the twin tutelage of Mister’s mistress, Shug, and his sassy new daughter-in-law, Sofia. In the novel, Shug teaches Celie a lot more than how to stand up for herself. It’s a shame it’s only alluded to here in a bizarre scene in which Celie scrubs Shug’s back while she luxuriates in a bathtub mounted on a spinning record platter. What?

Other women come and go during the emancipation of Celie, a transformation that requires decades and is accompanied by more than a half-dozen catchy tunes written by Allee Willis, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray. My problem with the songs – a mix of jazz, gospel and Motown-style throwbacks – is that they are a little too upbeat for the dark subject matter. Same with the numerous elaborate dance numbers thrillingly captured by cinematographer Dan Lausten (“The Shape of Water”).

It all builds toward a too-easy, tear-jerker ending underscoring the film’s themes of sisterhood and strength. Although nearly impossible to resist, an unease over the film lingers. Most troubling is the racist depiction of Black men as unfeeling brutes who treat women like chattel. The only males with a scintilla of gentility are Mister’s enlightened son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins from “Straight Outta Compton”), and Shug’s erudite, piano-playing husband, Grady (Grammy-winner Jon Batiste).

Fans of the Spielberg movie, keep your eye out for that film’s Celie, Whoopi Goldberg, in a meta cameo, playing a midwife attending to – who else? – Celie, during the birth of a second child sired by her rapist father. Adding to the nostalgia is the behind-the-scenes presence of Spielberg and Winfrey as producers. Yet, despite the star power, this “Color Purple” lacks the oomph necessary to rank among Hollywood’s best musicals. It’s merely OK, and for many, that will suffice. But die-hard fans of Walker’s landmark novel will once again no doubt be disappointed.

Movie review

The Color Purple

Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, sexual content, mature thematic elements

Cast: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Coleman Domingo, Halle Bailey, Corey Hawkins and Jon Batiste

Director: Blitz Bazawule

Writer: Marcus Gardley

Runtime: 140 minutes

Where: On Max

Grade: B-

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