Movies based on musicals based on movies are offering the cinematic blueprint du jour, somehow – 2024 begins with retellings of both Mean Girls and The Color Purple, with differing results: the latter is not a copy-and-paste of any of its predecessors, rather, a fairly smart retooling of all the best bits of Alice Waters' 1982 novel and the Broadway show based on it, in one new package.
Multi-hyphenate (author, visual artist, rapper, singer-songwriter and record producer as well as filmmaker) Blitz Bazawule infuses the story of abuse, segregation, suffering and eventually emancipation with light at every possible turn with his latest directorial effort: as much in the impressive (and now partially Oscar-nominated) ensemble as in the film’s rhythm, keeping intrigue afloat and hope ashore even in the darkest moments.
Fantasia Barrino reprises her lead role as Celie Johnson from the Broadway production, which saw her on stage between 2007 and 2008 and now gives her a feature debut role with huge responsibility and commendable conviction. On screen, her work is slightly less compelling than that of seasoned film acting co-stars Danielle Brooks (already an EGOT nominee, now a 2024 Academy Award nominee) as the headstrong and heartbreaking Sofia and Taraji P. Henson as the film’s most beguiling character, jazz singer Shug Avery.
More could have been made of the undeniable spark between Celie and Shug, one of the most divisive but compelling relationships in every iteration of The Color Purple when exploring the affection between these two women. Henson brings out the best in Barrino every time, as Celie’s repeated misfortune does plunge the character – and so the actor – into more of a vacuum than those around her.
Brooks’ star power is infectious, while even Domingo’s turn as the awful antagonist Mister greatly benefits from the actor’s emotional depth – little surprise, then, that he too was nominated for an Oscar this week, albeit for his work in the political biopic Rustin.
Bazawule deftly handles the narrative pacing between music and dialogue, each song (this has been whittled down from the stage musical, having dropped 13 numbers) only enhancing the scene’s emotion towards each extreme. There are still, inevitably with such a dense story, just so many places to get to in Celie’s journey (which begins with a well-judged performance from The Little Mermaid’s Halle Bailey as a younger version of Celie) that still don’t quite translate onscreen – Spielberg’s 1985 also ran over two and a half hours.
But it’s still a plus to bring the rich story to new audiences, spotlighting a perhaps familiar tale with fresh talent. Some may feel it still spends longer on the deep suffering of Black folks than is strictly warranted in 2024, but it urges us, by the end of the journey, to enjoy all the tiny moments of joy, too.
141 mins, cert 12A