The Push-Pull Of Brutality And Joy At The Heart Of The Color Purple


Music and The Color Purple have always had a symbiotic relationship, even before Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel became a hit Broadway musical in 2005. A blues singer is one of its main characters, a juke joint a key setting. Then there was the musicality of the novel’s epistolary style; Walker was already a published poet by the time she had written her first novel. The hit 1985 Steven Spielberg picture, co-produced and scored by Quincy Jones, introduced the sensuous ragtime anthem “Miss Celie’s Blues,” which has been covered endlessly since. The musical (and director Blitz Bazawule’s new adaptation of it) expands on this idea, working its palette of blues, gospel, and jazz surprisingly seamlessly into a story that, at least on its surface, might initially seem too brutal for big, jubilant numbers.

But the push-pull of darkness and hope was always at the heart of Walker’s novel. The infinite cruelties endured by its protagonist, Celie (played by the marvelous Fantasia Barrino as an adult in the new film), a Black woman living in Jim Crow Georgia in the first half of the 20th century, are matched by the solidarity, love, and sacrifice she grows to find in the women around her. That is perhaps one reason why the book, for all the specificity of its setting and characters, has endured for decades, and why its reach was so global. (Walker herself recalled that, on a 1983 trip to China, she was surprised to learn The Color Purple had become a popular underground title there. “But Alice, it is a very Chinese story,” she was told.)

And so, early on, as we move from a town full of people singing “The good Lord works in mysterious ways” to the sight of Celie as a child bearing her own father’s baby, Bazawule’s film has begun to establish its own distinct tone, one in which brutality and joy are juxtaposed and sometimes even intertwined. That is of course just the start of Celie’s ordeals, as she is soon betrothed unwillingly to Mister (Colman Domingo), a drunk, philandering local farmer who’s a lot more interested in her sister, Nettie. “Nettie’s too smart, she’s gonna be a schoolteacher,” says the girls’ father, offering him Celie instead, for a cow and a couple of eggs. “She’s ugly as homemade sin, but will work hard like a man.” And so the abusive Mister reluctantly takes Celie home and sets her to back-breaking work taking care of his three kids, even as he himself dreams of reconnecting with Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), the sultry blues singer with whom he’s infatuated.

Adversaries often become allies in The Color Purple, which makes their bonds that much stronger. Disowned by her preacher father, Shug arrives in town greeted by ominous flocks of birds, a celebrity whose presence both discomforts and enchants the pious townsfolk; before her first performance, she is a vision of deep red decadence gliding through a nocturnal swamp. She seems dismissive of Celie at first, but soon the two women have fallen for each other, as Celie imagines herself and Shug performing a classic black and white Broadway number, as sexual energy is replaced by cinematic energy, an interesting tradeoff. This new version of the film does a better job than Spielberg’s in depicting this lesbian relationship that was so key to the novel, but it still feels pretty demure and understated, a far cry from the book’s physicality.

Though Celie always remains the central character, the experiences of those around her expand the story’s portrait of a community and of the solidarity that grows among those who’ve been marginalized and beaten down. As the scene-stealing Sofia, the blustery, no-nonsense wife of Harpo (Corey Hawkins), Mister’s eldest son, Danielle Brooks (who also played the part on Broadway) demonstrates breathtaking range and quickly brings humanity to a character that, in another work, could have easily become a mere side note or a symbol. Of course, it is a great part: A little-known Chicago TV host named Oprah Winfrey also accomplished this nearly four decades ago, winning an Oscar nomination in her feature film acting debut. Broad and confident, Sofia starts off as a counterpoint to Celie’s frightened reserve, but eventually becomes a great source of pathos. All these women, we understand, are trying to survive in a world that seems to throw nothing but heartbreak at them.

It would be tempting to see this Color Purple as an analog of the earlier film: Spielberg is one of its executive producers, as are Jones and Winfrey, and Bazawule even references shots from the 1985 movie. But this Color Purple is its own thing: a genuine musical. Spielberg, for all his reputation at the time as a fantasist and master of spectacle, leaned into realism – or, at least, his version of realism. You could feel the humidity and the sun beating down on you. The world of his film was messy, lived-in, and as such its images of abuse and cruelty, even toned down for a PG-13 rating, hit particularly hard. (Those of us who were kids and saw it because it was from the man who made E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark will surely remember this.)

Bazawule’s movie, by contrast, hasn’t entirely shed its theatrical origins, perhaps by design. There is a certain staginess to some of its darkest moments, as if it wants to avoid rubbing our nose in the story’s bleakness. The sets are cavernous, well-lit, and even a little empty; they look ready for a chorus or a fleet of dancers to make their way in at any moment. When they eventually do, the camera moves fluidly among them, though the editing sometimes falls prey to the modern studio musical tendency to cut more frantically during the numbers, as if to match the energy of all that singing and dancing; the result is often the opposite, because it prevents us from experiencing the physical grace of the movements.

Still, even the movie’s snappy polish feels of a piece with what it’s trying to achieve. The Color Purple is not a particularly intimate or introspective musical; its numbers are big, very much meant to be sung to a big audience, maybe even to have the audience sing them back to the stage or the screen. For both movie and play, it feels as much like a trip to church as it is a trip to the theater.