I’m conflicted about this “bold new take on the beloved classic.” It’s good but also a bit odd with its mix of genres. It’s a musical drama based on the musical stage play based on the movie adapted from Alice Walker’s book about the decades-long struggles of an African American woman who was abused by her father, and then by her husband. I never saw the critically-acclaimed Broadway production, but I suspect some elements did not quite translate to the big screen. It left me wondering if the filmmakers should have taken a page from the likes of Waitress: The Musical, Come From Away, or Hamilton— and simply recorded the Broadway production for theatrical release. The performances are all solid and the music is delivered with the right amount of passion and heart. I’m just not convinced that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Fantasia Barrino (of American Idol fame) makes her feature film debut in the iconic role of Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 version), a timid young woman who endures a ton of heartbreak and domestic violence before a sisterhood of mentors gives her a glimpse into the power of standing up for yourself. Those women include the fierce and funny Sofia (fantastically played by scene-stealer Danielle Brooks, in the role Oprah Winfrey played in ’85); the sultry free-spirited jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), and Celie’s kind, independent sister Nettie (Halle Bailey).
The story takes place in the early 1900s and follows Celie’s fraught journey over the course of 40 years in the patriarchal rural South. It’s an oft-violent, emotional roller-coaster tempered somewhat by the occasional outbreak of song. Chief among the men we love to hate in this ‘Purple’ production is Colman Domingo as “Mister,” a farmer who wants to marry Nettie but is ‘given’ Celie instead. Adding insult to literal injury, Mister pines for his longtime mistress Shug.
The Color Purple in any form remains a stirring tale of sisterhood, strength, resilience, and redemption. For that, it gets props and perhaps a new generation of fans. Will it reach the classic status of the ’85 version? Doubtful.
The Color Purple opens in theaters on December 25.