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Review: ‘The Color Purple’ Remakes a Classic into One of the Year’s Best, Most Uplifting Musicals

December 19, 2023Ben MK

Moviegoers are no stranger to feature film adaptations of hit musicals. And while the reverse situation is certainly less common, there have been a few notable exceptions over the years. Whether it's musical versions of Back to the Future, Beetlejuice or Mrs. Doubtfire, turning a beloved movie into a hit song-and-dance production means honoring the spirit of the original while also crafting something new. And with The Color Purple, director Blitz Bazawule is taking a similar approach, as he turns Steven Spielberg's somber, groundbreaking 1985 drama into a joyous, musical celebration.

The year is 1909, and in the small community of Hartwell along the Georgia Coast, teenage sisters Nettie and Celie Harris (Halle Bailey and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) can't imagine life without one another. Raised by their stern shopkeeper father Alfonso (Deon Cole) since the death of their mother, Nettie and Celie have supported each other through thick and thin, especially now that Celie is in the midst of her second unplanned pregnancy. However, when Alfonso pushes Celie into marrying the abusive Albert 'Mister' Johnson (Colman Domingo), the two inseparable siblings find their tight-knit bond threatened. It's a sudden twist of fate that only marks the beginning of Celie's lifelong journey of hardship and suffering. And when Nettie and Celie are seemingly separated for good after a violent confrontation with Mister one rainy night, it leaves Celie alone in her misery, as she's forced to spend the best years of her life cooking, cleaning, and tending to her husband's every whim.

Fast forward to 1917, and despite not having seen or heard from Nettie in eight years, Celie (Fantasia Barrino) still hasn't stopped holding onto the hope of one day be reunited with her, if only to keep herself going through the daily abuse she has to endure at the hands of Mister. But when Mister's son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins), brings home his feisty new fiancée, Sofia (Danielle Brooks), Celie finds herself introduced to what it genuinely means to be an independent woman, which leads her to begin wanting more from life. It's a scenario that repeats itself years later, when Celie meets the headstrong Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a flamboyant and popular jazz singer who also happens to be Mister's old flame. Little does Celie realize, however, just how much of an inspiration both Sofia and Shug will be on her life. And although it will be yet a few more years before Celie finally turns that inspiration into long-overdue action, she can already start to feel herself becoming a changed woman.

Suffice to say, transforming Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into an uplifting theatrical experience is no small feat. In spite of the odds, however, Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley prove more than up to the challenge, handling the source material with the utmost care and respect. It's a fine line to walk, make no mistake about it, due to the story's themes of racism and sexual and domestic abuse. Thankfully, Bazawule and Gardley don't just have the characters sing and dance around the film's subject matter, but instead confront it head on, with each member of the cast getting their chance to shine as they bring some of the most memorable songs from Marsha Norman's 2005 and 2015 Broadway stage adaptations of The Color Purple to the big screen.

One of the most transcendent movies of the year, the result is a decades-spanning odyssey of hope, love and forgiveness that's guaranteed to resonate with all audiences. What will stay with viewers the most, however, is Barrino's Golden Globe-nominated portrayal, which is sure to land the former American Idol winner a coveted statue come awards season. It's her performance that makes The Color Purple as life-affirming as it is. And in a year marked by so much real-world conflict, that's exactly what moviegoers need right now.

The Color Purple releases December 25th, 2023 from Warner Bros. Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language. Its runtime is 2 hr. 20 min.

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