The second film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” (2023) is a mixed bag, featuring some tremendous showstoppers within a weak and disarrayed structure.
Musicals can of course feature themes such as abuse, violence or discrimination, but there was still some trepidation when a musical film version The Color Purple was announced. This harsh story of unrelenting hardship imposed upon an African American woman in early 1900s America deals with intense domestic abuse as well as racism, and whilst the story has been told before on Broadway, much of these concerns come true. This is very much a half-cooked, head-scratching jumble of tonal issues. The performances are largely terrific, but this poorly paced musical film does little justice to Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name.
The story of The Color Purple is undeniably epic in terms of scope. We first meet Celie as a youngster (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) before moving with her throughout her life as she grows older. In these stages, she is played by a superb Fantasia Barrino, with some iffy ageing techniques used to show the progress of time. Saying her life is difficult is an understatement: her father beats and rapes her, resulting in two children, before selling her off to marry an equally abusive man known as Mister (Colman Domingo, Zola). She draws strength from the hope of being reunited with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey, The Little Mermaid, and Ciara) one day, who left home as a youngster and escaped to Africa.
This short summary barely scratches the surface of The Color Purple’s story, with a large ensemble bringing their own voices and stories to the fold. It is disappointing but perhaps unsurprising then that the structure of The Color Purple is a mess. The film flits wildly across time periods, which are only distinguishable from each by the use of title cards signifying the year. The Color Purple finds some of its footing as the various character arcs come to the fore, but this is a generally shoddy, haphazard affair in terms of structure and pacing.
Even in some of its latter moments, The Color Purple stuffs in rushed closure for some of the most important characters. Director Blitz Bazawule (The Burial of Kojo) isn’t given the strongest foundation to work with, but he still struggles to balance the tone correctly. One bizarre moment sees the camera slow zoom from the inside of a picture, until we see the frame shaking as marital rape takes place. It’s a rightfully shocking contrast, but sickly in its stylisation.
It’s a shame, because some of the musical numbers are terrific; these showstoppers highlight the power of musicals in drawing out raw emotion in such tumultuous circumstances. Some numbers are present from the original stage version, but there are plenty of new songs here as well. Highlights include “Hell No!” and the climactic “I’m Here”, performed by the two star performers of the film: Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black) and Barrino respectively. Both reprise their roles from productions of the stage musical, and both give forceful and raw performances that hold The Color Purple together. Brooks in particular is a shining light.
Other musical numbers in The Color Purple are largely forgettable, whilst the background music feels ripped out of the corniest Hollywood music book imaginable. This musical contrast highlights the overarching issue with The Color Purple: for every part that is fantastic, there are even more that are terribly weak. Much of the film feels half-baked, in many of its characters and themes, in some of its resolutions, in its utilisation of African culture, right down to its music. Walker’s story is a strong one though, and whilst this film adaptation doesn’t completely work, it is difficult not to be moved by Celie’s resilience. Much of this is down to the spectacular acting performances and a selection of foot-tapping and eye-watering showstoppers.
The Color Purple (2023) will be released globally in theaters on December 25, 2023.