'The Color Purple' Is a Vivid Depiction of Resilience

Directed by Blitz Bazawule

Starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Halle Bailey, Ciara, H.E.R., Jon Batiste, Deon Cole, Louis Gossett Jr., Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

BY Courtney SmallPublished Dec 19, 2023

In 1967, Malcolm X famously declared, "The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman."

His words still ring with deafening truth today, as Black women continue to see their voting rights, bodily autonomy and access to resources under attack, despite being relied upon for decades to save American democracy. It's one of the many reasons a film like Blitz Bazawule's The Color Purple remains extremely relevant decades after Alice Walker's 1982 novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and Steven Spielberg's 1985 cinematic adaptation was released.

In adapting the stage musical version — with Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones serving as producers — Bazawule weaves together a visually vibrant and emotional tale of a woman finding her voice after years of men trying to silence her. 
For Celie Harris (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as young Celie and Fantasia Barrino as adult Celie), the journey to self-reliance goes through a road of unspeakable hardship. Living in rural Georgia in the early 1900s, she had already given birth to two children by age 14, both the result of rapes by her father Alfonso (Deon Cole); both children have been taken away from her at his instruction. Lacking the educational opportunities her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) receives, Celie spends her days quietly cleaning her father's shop while leaning on her faith and vivid imagination to sustain her. 

Believing that God has a plan for everyone, Celie's faith is tested when her father marries her off to the much older Mister (Colman Domingo), a local farmer and widow. Tasked with tending to the house and caring for his kids, Celie endures various forms of abuse at the hands of her domineering husband. The only brief ray of sunshine through the gloom comes when Nettie arrives at their door seeking lodging after their father's failed attempted to sexually assault her. Sadly, Mister's house is no refuge for Nettie, as she is soon banned from the premises after rejecting the lecherous man's advances.  

Celie is trapped in solitude for years, as Mister strategically intercepts all of Nettie's letters to her. Celie goes through the motions as the dutiful wife while living in fear of her husband's wrath. Longing for a fraction of the confidence that women like Sofia (Danielle Brooks), who is dating Mister's son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), and songstress Shug (Taraji P. Henson), the only woman Mister ever loved, effortlessly display, it's only a matter of time before Celie's pushed to her breaking point.

Just as Celie slowly begins to gain confidence, so does Bazawule's film. Walking gingerly through its opening sections, Bazawule unnecessarily holds the audience's hand as the film establishes both its overly melodramatic beats — of which there are many — and its musical tone. The Color Purple eventually finds its unique stride when it transitions to Celie in adulthood, with even the musical set pieces taking on a bold new look and feel as the film progresses.

Widely known for his work on Beyoncé's Black Is King, Bazawule is no stranger to creating stunning visuals. Whether capturing the budding sense of desire growing between Celie and Shug or using colour and choreography to convey the sinful pleasures that can be sparked during a night out at the local bar, each musical number is more spectacular than the next. The film even coveys a sense of grandness when stripping things down to its intimate core — Celie's iconic "I'm Here" being a perfect example. And for as mesmerizing as the musical numbers are, the stellar performances by the ensemble cast are what truly makes this crowd-pleaser sing. 

Once again assuming the role she played on Broadway, Barrino is sensational as the mistreated Celie in her feature film debut. Through her raw vulnerability and powerful singing voice, she truly makes the character her own. Barrino's work is perfectly matched by the chilling villainous turn that Domingo gives as Mister. Already having a memorable year for his brilliant performance in the civil rights drama Rustin, Domingo continues to show his immense range by displaying the layers buried within his character's seemingly uncaring demeanour. 

Of course, the true scene-stealer of the film is Brooks, an absolute revelation to behold. Despite having already played Sofia on the stage, her work here feels fresh and invigorating. Charged with conveying a complex range of emotions, she has the audience laughing one moment and crying the next. Brooks perfectly encapsulates the way Black women are expected to uplift weak men and persecuted for displaying their strong sense of self.
In addition to the outstanding performances, Bazawule's version finally addresses some of the criticism that its cinematic predecessor received. As beloved as Spielberg's film is — garnering 11 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture — fans of the book took issue with the stereotyping of Black men as inherently violent, as well as the director downplaying the lesbian subtext, a decision he later admitted to but ultimately said he wouldn't change. By reinstating Shug and Celie's attraction to one another, an aspect prominent in both the novel and stage version, Bazawule adds layers to the film by highlighting the destructive and generational harm that the fragile male ego can cause.

Although it may take supernatural forces to make a man like Mister look inward, The Color Purple makes it clear that Black women will continue to forge their own way despite the barriers others may throw in their path.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

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