Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is simply too monumental a work to be reduced to a single, “definitive” adaptation. Like any classic, the 1982 epistolary novel – in which Celie, a Black woman in turn-of-the-century Georgia, writes to God as she passes through trauma and into a state of liberation – can easily withstand the touch of a hundred artists’ hands. After her book’s publication, Walker became the first Black woman to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, while her novel comfortably took its place as one of art’s most resonant celebrations of Black womanhood.
Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, which helped launch Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey to stardom, its 2005 Broadway adaptation, and its 2015 revival have now led to this: a cinematic rendition of the stage musical, from Blitz Bazawule, best known for directing Beyoncé’s musical film Black Is King. More than in any other version, Bazawule has softened the framework of Celie’s life. It’s occasionally for the worse, but more admirably in the pursuit of healing, for both Celie and her audience. Here, the sun shines hazy, an early mist clings to the grass, and pastel dresses spin like petals caught in the wind. Bazawule, and cinematographer Dan Laustsen, have placed us somewhere within the realm of memory, dream, and history. It remains a profoundly moving experience.
Fantasia Barrino, who toured the US as Celie in 2010, takes centre stage, while Phylicia Pearl Mpasi appears as her younger iteration. Celie was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the man she knew as her father (Deon Cole), gave birth twice, saw her children ripped from her arms, and was forced into wedlock with the abusive Mister (Colman Domingo), who drove away her sister and only ally (The Little Mermaid’s Halle Bailey, and later the pop star Ciara). To survive, she’s retreated from reality, which gives logic to The Color Purple’s musical numbers. Each is staged as a commanding fantasy, a pure expulsion of needs and desires.
Barrino, in her dialogue scenes, seems to hold ever-so slightly back, skirting the edges of what Goldberg achieved with the role more than three decades earlier. But then she delivers the standout number “I’m Here”, and it’s as if the doors of the cinema have been blown off their hinges. She’s playing two Celies, the internal and external, and the grace of her performance lies in allowing them eventually to meet.
Mister is obsessively attached to Shug (Taraji P Henson), a bisexual jazz performer draped in red feathers and beads who, with a slink of her hips, plays up to the force of Henson’s offscreen stardom. Shug and Celie’s subsequent romance is undoubtedly more present than in Spielberg’s film (a choice he’s since regretted). But, while Marcus Gardley’s script allows the women to declare their love while waltzing on a Hollywood sound stage, it renders the transformative desire of Walker’s book – and the ways Shug teaches Celie about her own sexuality – notably chaste.
Though the transitions between sweet to tragic or wistful to dark don’t always land as they should, the emotions at the center of The Color Purple are expressed with overwhelming clarity. Most striking is Danielle Brooks, returning to the role of Sofia after her 2015 stint on Broadway, a self-determined woman married to Mister’s weak-willed, but tender-hearted son Harpo (an excellent Corey Hawkins). She’s funny and outspoken, but when she delivers the line, “all my life I had to fight”, you feel the decades of battle weigh heavy on her bones. The Color Purple embraces Brooks, as it does Barrino and Henson – it’s a story made to be defined and redefined, adopted by each generation and made their own.
Dir: Blitz Bazawule. Starring: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, HER, Halle Bailey. 12A, 141 minutes.
‘The Color Purple’ is in cinemas from 26 January