The Color Purple ★★★

Alice Walker’s classic novel The Color Purple hits the big screen in musical reinterpretation

The Color Purple has a long history: written as a novel in 1982, it won the Pulitzer prize for its author Alice Walker, and would go on to be made into a film in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, with a soundtrack by Quincy Jones. The film then became a Broadway musical in 2005; and this version, while also a musical, is an amalgamation of the stage show, the 1985 film and the original novel.

All images by Warner Bros Pictures

The film begins in the early 1900s in Georgia, South America. A teenage Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) lives with her younger sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) and their father Alfonso (Deon Cole) who runs the local store. Celie gives birth to a daughter, fathered by Alfonso, and he takes the child away as he had done with her first-born. Despite this heartbreaking turn of events, Celie and Nettie are seen to be ‘traditional’ carefree sisters, happy in each other’s company, until one day, Albert “Mister” Johnson rides into town. Celie is very taken with him, but the more learned Nettie warns her that he is The Devil. Mister approaches Alfonso for Nettie’s hand but he is instead given Celie as a wife and mother to his three young and wayward children. Theirs is not a happy union, but this is not a particularly happy film, littered as it is with abuse, sexual violence and domestic abuse. Nettie comes to stay but after Mister attempts to rape her and she rebuffs him, she is thrown out into the rainy night with a threat that if she ever comes back, he will kill both her and her sister. After committing to writing to each other, Nettie runs away, but Mister refuses to allow Celie to empty the mailbox so Nettie’s letters never arrive.

While the story is of its time and background is important, there is so much exposition in the first hour that we become bogged down like the swamps surrounding Harpo’s juke joint, and hard as the situations were it was difficult to care much for any of the characters. Thank goodness, then, for the arrival of Danielle Brooks as Sofia, who injects some much-needed fun and sass into proceedings. Brooks played the role in the original Broadway production in 2007-08, and it is clear that she is completely absorbed in this character. It is all the more heartbreaking in the latter part of the film when this joy and gumption is stripped from her by her spell in prison following a street brawl after she refuses to accept the Mayor’s Wife’s offer of work as a maid.

Similarly, the arrival of Shug brings some 1920s glamour to the screen, and Taraji P. Henson plays her with a ton of sex appeal and sultriness. This is picked up by Celie (now played by Fantasia Barrino) leading to the much-discussed kiss between characters. It’s hard to imagine the furore created almost 40 years ago when Spielberg’s film was threatened with boycotts by its mere inclusion. Here, the movie allows for more intimacy between Celie and Shug, more faithfully representing the affection between the two woman depicted in the novel – a relationship, incidentally, Alice Walker based on her own grandmother Rachel and her grandfather’s lover.

The music and choreography is cleverly woven into the scenes, whether men working on the building site in “Workin” or the women preparing for the opening of Celie’s new shop in “Miss Celie’s New Pants,” and it brings vim and vigour to the screen. It seems very contemporary for the timescale of the piece, yet never sits out of place which is credit to the choreographer Fatima Robinson and the production values of Quincy Jones. The haunting “I’m Here” stirs the emotions and the union of the characters in “The Color Purple” at the end of the film is a suitably uplifting end to a draining film.

While the acting cannot be faulted and Blitz Bazawule directs with empathy and compassion, there is no denying that the 2-hours-20 running time is at least twenty minutes too long. The settings are extremely evocative and the last hour is engaging and moves on at pace to the ending in 1947, but it is not enough to make up for the sprawling wilderness of the first 80 minutes. Will this film warrant a repeat viewing? In the words of Sofia, “Hell no!”

The Color Purple left our reviewer rather blue – ★ Three stars