Friday, December 29, 2023

The Color Purple (2023): A Review


It is a bit difficult for me to look on the musical adaptation of The Color Purple because I am familiar with the 1985 film adaptation. As such, I already know the story and cannot help thinking of the original film. With that said, 2023's The Color Purple does have some good elements despite my familiarity with the subject.

Going from 1909 to 1947, we get the life of Celie Johnson. Young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) is abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her father Alonso (Deon Cole). She is on her second child by Alonso, who promptly takes her child away after birth. If not for her sister Nettie (Hallie Bailey) life would be unbearable.

It is not long before Nettie catches the eye of Mister (Colman Domingo). Alonso would rather pass Celie off to him, and with that, Celie goes to marry Mister. Mister is as abusive to Celie (Fantasia Barrino) as Alonso. In one respect, he is worse: he drove Nettie off his land when she refused his advances. Celie lives forever under the shadow of Mister's true love, blues chanteuse Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson). Shug is her own woman, unbossed and unbought as they say. She is not afraid of Mister, down to calling him "Albert", his actual name.

Also unafraid of Mister is his son's wife Sophia (Danielle Brooks). She's large and in charge, telling Mister and his son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) what's what. She won't allow Harpo to beat her and promptly leaves when he so much as tries. Shug eventually comes to stay with Albert and bonds with Celie, finding in her a kindred spirit. Harpo turns his house into a juke joint, where Shug is Queen of the scene.

Celie, through time and the encouragement of Shug, Sophia and Harpo's new girl Squeak (pop singer H.E.R., billed as Gabriella Wilson H.E.R.) slowly comes into her own. Able to at long last stand up to Mister after discovering a cache of letters from Nettie, she embarks on her own as Shug's traveling companion and eventual career as a seamstress of renown. Things come full circle for Celie, able at last to reconcile her past and future through curious twists of fate.

When you have a film as well-known and beloved as 1985's The Color Purple, one runs the risk of merely copying the original when making a remake. 2023's The Color Purple has the difference of being a musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. I would not have thought that the story would lend itself to a musical. I was somewhat wrong, in that The Color Purple can work as a musical.

I say "somewhat wrong" not out of ego. Rather, it is because try as the film might, it could not shake off its Broadway roots. My mind kept going to the phrase "too staged". Almost every musical number felt unrealistic. I know that is a strange criticism of a musical, but I hope to clarify myself. In the most successful film musicals, like The Sound of Music or 1961's West Side Story, the musical numbers were as organic as possible. There is, granted, an unreality to people singing and dancing on film, but those films did not feel unnatural or exaggerated in how that was presented.

The Color Purple, conversely, made almost every musical number grand, big and obvious that it veered very close to parody. The opening number, Mysterious Ways, was so massive in the choreography that I thought I was watching a stage presentation versus a film. Another number, She Be Mine, is almost bizarre when young Celie is walking through a group of men in a chain gang keeping rhythm before she ends up walking through a group of women who choreograph a dance at a waterfall while doing laundry.

Intentionally or not, She Be Mine brought to mind Sam Cooke's Chain Gang. Again, I know this is a strange criticism for a musical, but The Color Purple was curiously big on choreographing its musical numbers with elaborate dance numbers that looked more suitable for a theater stage than a film. I can see how a number like Push Da Button might be big and almost over-the-top. It is Shug Avery's debut performance at Harpo's juke joint. However, why have an elaborate dance number for Workin, where Harpo is singing and dancing with his work crew when building said juke joint? 

I understand that several numbers from the stage musical were cut from the film version, with only Keep It Movin and Superpower (I) being written for the film. Both new songs are fine, the former catchy and the latter well delivered by Barrino. However, I think some of the other songs could have been cut, or at the very least not delivered in such an elaborate fashion that only served to call attention to themselves.

On the whole the performances were quite good. The standout was Brooks as Sophia. Big, bold and brassy (as Mister, Senior observed, "more entertaining than a radio show"), Brooks dominates whenever on screen. That is not to say that she does not have quiet moments. When softly pleading with Celie for her to stay when Sophia is locked up, Brooks is deeply moving. 

Henson is commanding as Shug Avery, though at times I felt she was making the character less bold and assertive as she should have been. Wilson aka H.E.R. had a smaller part but she did well as Squeak (real name Mary Agnes). Barrino, who played Celie on Broadway, really came into her own late in the film, particularly her solo number I'm Here. She and Henson also had a wonderful scene in What About Love? (not the Heart song), an Art Deco fantasy that subtly suggests a Sapphic relationship between them. 

I think that we did not see as much acting as we could have from Barrino or Henson due more to director Blitz Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley, which despite the film's two-hour-plus runtime felt oddly rushed. The directing of the male actors showed a curious element. Domingo and Hawkins came across as almost too nice to be these harsh men. Yes, Domingo's Mister slapped Celie hard. As I watched, however, I never felt that Domingo was brutal. In short, I think he was playing someone who was cruel, but he never convinced me that he was Mister. He was Colman Domingo playing Mister. Only Louis Gossett, Jr. as Old Mister in a small part did well. 

I would say that David Alan Grier as Reverend Avery, Shug's disapproving father, was the most cartoonish in his portrayal.

The Color Purple does have excellent production work and cinematography, capturing the look of early Twentieth Century rural South. It also has some nice bits of dialogue. "If they're rough around the edges, you know they soft on the inside," Celie tells Shug. While talking about seeds, the double meaning is well-crafted. 

It is hard to shake the memory of the 1985 original in this adaptation. Using Miss Celie's Blues (Sister) from the original here helps. It is not a bad inclusion, but those kinds of callbacks don't help separate the new from the old. Ultimately, I think it did not translate well from stage to screen, yet while The Color Purple fails to get away from the past, it does decent enough in its crowd-pleasing presentation.

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