The Plot: Georgia, 1916. Life has not been easy for Celie (Fantasia Barrino). She was married away as a teenager to the dominant and drunken Mister (Colman Domingo). That troubled relationship leads to a deep fracture in her relationship with her sister Nettie, who Mister has forbidden her from seeing. The sisters drift apart, but Nettie keeps writing – although Mister withholds her letters from Celine. The arrival of the outgoing and glamorous Shug (Taraji P. Henson), a former flame of Mister’s, changes things though. She opens up Celine’s heart and mind to looking beyond her humdrum life and hoping for something better and full of the colour purple…
The Verdict: It’s a brave man who takes on the task of remaking a Steven Spielberg film while the great director is still very much with us. Not that anyone in Hollywood is going near Jaws anytime soon (it’s untouchable anyway, so don’t even think about it Hollywood). The film in question is The Color Purple, Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and infamously went home with… nothing. So, why dip into this deep well of noble Southern-fried suffering but boundless hope once more? The suitably-named Blitz Bazawule went in all-guns blazing for his new version, which is less an adaptation of the book and more a re-imagining of the earlier film – with Spielberg’s blessing of course (he’s a producer along with the original’s star Oprah Winfrey). The twist here is that it’s a musical drawn from the stage play.
One might well wonder why the musical format might be bolted onto The Color Purple, given its at-times difficult subject matter and then-contemporary taboos regarding race, gender politics and sexuality. A double challenge then for Bazawule, himself a musician by trade but also a very visual and aural filmmaker at heart. The answer that appears to emanate from this distinctive adaptation is that the high emotions on display naturally lend themselves to the characters breaking into song to more properly illustrate their place in their small world. This is particularly true of Celine, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage but dutiful to a fault and caring towards her children and step-children alike. The pain of her separation from her beloved sister is felt throughout the film, like a ghost faintly visible in the distance and just out of reach. And yet, there’s always the possibility of something happening to change things for good.
There’s a strong sense of confidence running throughout this adaptation, not just in Bazawule’s firmly-focused direction but also the emotive performances and stunning choreography. An early sequence sees the young Nettie (Halle Bailey, more than just The Little Mermaid) walking through a group of working men swinging pickaxes mere inches away. A later sequence shows the older and more reserved Celine dancing with the altogether more-vibrant Shug, projected onto a spinning vinyl record. There’s even a nod to the early days of cinema. There’s no sense here of a rehearsal being fine tuned or edited to cover mistakes. For a reviewer who doesn’t particularly care for musicals (they tend to be warbly and exhausting like Les Miserables), he has to say that the music and dance sequences are darn impressive. They’re layered in at the right moments to heighten the magical-realism element of this adaptation. Some suspension of disbelief is required going in – let’s just say that decades pass storywise but the lead actors don’t end up in the make-up chair.
Speaking of which, former American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino is a strong presence as Celine. She hits the right vocal notes and also the emotional story beats with aplomb, rendering Celine a shy woman who just needs the right person in her life to allow her to blossom. Colman Domingo is equally impressive as Mister, bringing the cruelty of the character to the surface but also keeping him recognisably human. Domingo has been steadily working away for years. Between this and his Golden Globe and BAFTA-nominated performance in Rustin, he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves. The Color Purple could very well have gone in the wrong direction and been a pale imitation of the earlier film. Instead, it more than justifies its existence. It confidently stands shoulder-to-shoulder with it, bursting with life in all its ugliness, beauty, love, kindness and wonder. Walking by this Color Purple in a field and not noticing it would be an injustice indeed.