The Color Purple is a great film adaptation of the Broadway Award-Winning musical version of this harrowing and endearing story of hope and strength. Adapted from the same novel as the Steven Spielberg film, the story largely remains the same with the inclusion of original songs to tell the story in a unique new way. Having not seen the original film, I opted to go into this musical adaptation mostly blind to the story and had a remarkable experience taking it all in. I can see how the more dramatic, non-musical perhaps tells this story more effectively, but I still quite enjoyed the musical experience and imagine audiences will as well.
Young sisters Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Nettie (Halle Bailey) grow up as young black teenagers in Georgia around the turn of the 20th century. Celie unfortunately suffers physical and sexual abuse from her father until she’s offered to Mister (Colman Domingo) as a bride and endures years of wrath from his hand. As Celie grew older (Fantasia Barrino) she tried to write to her sister, keeping hope alive that she was safe somewhere and that they might see each other again someday. While she spent years hoping, Celie grew close to Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the wife of Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) and Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), the renowned singer who still captures Mister’s attention. No matter the cruelties and hardships these black women faced, they never lost their spirits, and their hope and love were instrumental to that.
More than just a story of spiritual and physical endurance, The Color Purple is a devastating look at what real evil looks like in most people’s lives and how many are subject to its cruelty. While it feels like the world Celie grew up in is long past, it’s not been more than 100 years and the effects of old world thinking when it comes to marriage and ownership are still prevalent in our society today. While our society has been better about addressing and condemning sexual and domestic abuse, these issues still prevail and it’s important that survivors and victim’s stories are told to show others they aren’t alone.
In an outstanding ensemble of sensational vocal and emotional talent, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks completely steal the show in two performances that benefit from being so drastically different. Barrino’s Celie, despite being battered and bruised both physically and spiritually over the years, constantly delivers hopeful moments with monologues and singing which channel a mother and a sister’s heartbreak in ways that really affect the audience. Brooks’ Sofia is the biggest outlier in the film as she’s undoubtedly more confident and assertive than any of the women these men have ever met. Her take-no-crap attitude is more than just the laughs it’s often played for, as Brooks brings a sensitivity to the tough demeanor that clearly is influenced by the way she was once treated. For me, the standout song comes from Brooks as she proclaims “Hell No” to the idea of a man putting his hands on a woman to get her to obey him. Together, Barrino and Brooks inspire and play off one another so beautifully in the film and act as two distinct representations of how we can move through life.
As the provocateur and main villain of the film, it’s interesting to me how we see Colman Domingo’s Mister evolve throughout the years. Domingo is a world-class piece of trash in this film and succeeds too effectively in his lack of care for Barrino’s Celie and her wellbeing. As unsettling as his performance is, Domingo does a fantastic job giving some roundness to Mister’s character without necessarily excusing his actions. He and Taraji P. Henson have some incredibly enjoyable moments together which only make you feel worse about how he treats Barrino. If anything, his performance was a constant reminder of how cruel some men can be and how they just want to feel power over someone when they can’t have what they want. Domingo doesn’t hold back with the viciousness of his attacks on Barrino and the film is at its most effective when it sits with those dramatic moments.
As a musical The Color Purple is a truly interesting work because it must cover so many different periods of time when music and lives were changing rapidly. There are plenty of showstopping numbers which highlight the living conditions at the time in Georgia and provide you with a sense of the culture and unspoken rules. While I enjoyed many of the songs, at a certain point I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of musical numbers and started to feel that it was taking away from the power of the drama at the core of the story. A few solos certainly highlight emotion and the severity of certain scenes, but I found myself not nearly as emotional as I imagined myself being while watching and I think it’s because it was overshadowed by the songs.
The Color Purple is the kind of story that’s hard to talk about but is essential to discuss because it’s a part of our history and it shines a light on women and especially black women who were the target of abuse in all its forms and how they survived with the help of one another. The power of hope and of their love of God kept these women working towards a life they always envisioned for themselves, and their strength is truly something powerful to behold. The Color Purple is exactly the kind of experience that takes your emotions for a steep ride through the canyons of triumph and tragedy, leaving you with a greater appreciation for the strong women in this world who keep everything running and still must deal with men and the world’s crap. I may not have any of the songs stuck in my head, but I did enjoy this musical and I imagine I’ll enjoy the dramatic version even more.
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