The Color Purple (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: December 26th, 2023

Watching The Color Purple, there were times when the split personality was enough to pull me out of the experience. Musical stage adaptations of serious novels can sometimes work because of the immediacy of the audience and the reality of the curtain call. That's one of the issues with this "bold, new take" of Alice Walker's seminal novel, which was published in 1982, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, was turned into a classic movie by Stephen Spielberg in 1985, and was reworked as a stage musical in 2005. There's a near-constant push-pull tension between the 2023 version's dramatic elements and the high energy song-and-dance numbers. There are times when the two aspects work in harmony but the latter too often overshadows the former.

Another issue relates to the narrative compressions necessary to accommodate the musical numbers. The Color Purple clocks in at 140 minutes; however, the Spielberg version, without all the singing and dancing, ran longer than 2 ½ hours. As a result, there are times when gaps open up in the chronology. Overall, the story seems to be more of a skeleton than something fully fleshed out. Director Blitz Bazawule has gone to great lengths to deny that this is a "remake" of the 1985 film - a claim that might have greater legitimacy if three of the pillars of the 1985 movie (Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones) weren't once again involved. The use of the terminology "bold, new take" to justify the existence of this The Color Purple sounds a lot like the rationale currently being used by Disney to plunder their animated catalog for a slew of superfluous remakes.

Taken out of context, The Color Purple is a compelling - if flawed - piece of pop entertainment. The movie is never as powerful as it might be with all the music video clips constantly shouldering aside the dramatic material. There are some great performances, with ex-American Idol contestant Fantasia Barrino filling the lead role of Celie, Danielle Brooks dominating every scene as the brassy Sofia, and Colman Domingo crafting a thoroughly hateful Mister. Barrino and Brooks (who have played their respective roles in stage iterations of the production), joined by a larger-than-life Taraji P. Henson as the larger-than-live Shrug Avery, have voices to match the musical numbers so there's never a problem with a singer being asked to belt out a tune their vocal chords aren't ready for.

The Color Purple spans several decades of life in early 20th century rural Georgia with the focus starting on Celie Harris (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her younger sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey). Celie, whose sexual abuse at the hands of her father has resulted in two pregnancies (with both babies are stolen from her following birth), clings to her close bond with her sister. That ends when Celie's father forces her into an arranged marriage with Albert "Mister" Johnson, a local widower who is looking for a second wife to care for his house, do his cooking, service him in the bedroom when his mistress, Shrug Avery, isn't around, and act as his punching bag when he's drunk or in a bad mood. When Nettie tries to move in with Celie, Mister makes a pass at her. After she rejects him, she is cast outside and told never to return. Following many years without contact, Celie comes to believe Nettie is dead. She goes on with life as best she can living with an abusive husband until Shrug, a popular showgirl, returns to town. Friendships with Shrug and Sofia, the new wife of Mister's son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins), give Celie an increasing appreciation of her own self-worth.

Most of the key plot points in the novel have been retained, although none resonates as forcefully as in the earlier movie. The 2023 The Color Purple is a handsomely mounted motion picture and there are fleeting moments when it touches magic. Its thematic underpinnings skew toward female empowerment and sisterhood. After the passage of 140 minutes, it doesn't offer enough that's sufficiently transcendent to supplant the images and impact of the original. For those who avoid anything made prior to the dawn of the 21st century or dislike straight drama, a case can be made in favor of the 2023 The Color Purple. It's high-octane showmanship but one can be justified wondering whether that's the best choice for this material.

© 2023 James Berardinelli