I still haven’t seen the 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple, but I understand it remains one of the more controversial films in the catalogue of Steven Spielberg. Not least of all because he was a white director at the helm of a solidly black movie. I’d say that such a thing would be unlikely to happen nowadays, but then we’d waste our time with a stupid argument about whether West Side Story (2021) counts.
The point being that Spielberg finally did what he should’ve done back in his post-E.T. heyday and came on board as producer to champion an up-and-coming black director for The Color Purple (2023). For extra measure, we got Quincy Jones (godfather of the 1985 film), Oprah Winfrey (who began her auspicious film career with the 1985 picture), and Alice Walker (author of the original book) all listed as additional producers. The screenplay comes from Marcus Gardley (a TV writer here making his film debut), adapting the smash hit Broadway musical adaptation from Marsha Norman.
If you’re keeping score, that’s book->1985 film ->Broadway musical->2023 musical film.
In the director’s chair is Blitz “the Ambassador” Bazawule. His filmography is scant, but he apparently has a respectable career as a music video director and a musician in his own right. So, what have we got?
For those coming in fresh, this is the story of Celie, played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi before she ages into Fantasia Barrino. She’s the more homely sister to beautiful tomboy Nettie (Halle Bailey) and they both have the misfortune to be the daughters of a truly evil S.O.B. (Alfonso, played by Deon Cole). How evil is he? Alfonso rapes his own daughter (implied in passing in the film, but confirmed in the book), makes Celie give birth to two kids, then forces Celie to give them both up for adoption.
Buckle up, folks, we’re just getting started.
In short order, Alfonso literally sells Celie into marriage with “Mister”, played by Colman Domingo. Long story short, Mister turns out to be a womanizing asshole who brings Celie home into a life of nonstop domestic violence. Later on, when Nettie is kicked out of home and moves in with Celie, Mister tries to rape Nettie until she fights back. At which point, Mister throws her out on threat of violence and Nettie runs away to places unknown, leaving Mister to prevent any further contact between the two sisters.
This is all within the first twenty minutes. Let’s put a pin in that for now.
Before going any further, I want to point out what I genuinely like about the film. To start with, the cast is phenomenal from top to bottom. Fantasia Barrino sells the character, Halle Bailey once again proves herself a dynamic young talent, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks dominate the screen. Colman Domingo has long been uniquely talented at playing charismatic demons, David Alan Grier is a welcome presence as the local pastor, and Corey Hawkins does a respectable job with what he has. We even get brief yet noteworthy appearances from Jon Batiste and motherfucking Louis Gossett Jr. Hell, they even got Whoopi Goldberg herself (the 1985 Celie) to poke her head in for a prominent speaking cameo. Every single actor in this movie, down to the last background extra, is the best possible choice for their respective character.
The production design is gleaming with polish, the costumes all look fantastic, and the choreography is quite impressive. In fact, the musical numbers throughout are delightful… in a vacuum. In the context of the movie — most especially in the first act, when we’ve got upbeat gospel numbers in between sexual assaults — it comes off as tonally dissonant to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a bit of peppy comic relief to lighten such heavy material, but a little goes a long way. More importantly, it makes a huge difference that so precious few of these songs do anything to advance the plot or the character development arcs. Without that forward momentum, we’re stuck waiting with the characters for the real story to begin.
See, what we’ve got here is a 20th century Cinderella story, set in the black rural post-bellum South. In theory, it’s a sweet idea. In practice, we’re stuck watching two-dimensional violent fuckheads drive the plot until our protagonist can finally grow a spine. And at least Cinderella wanted to go to the Prince’s ball — Celie has no clear motivation or goal whatsoever through at least half the film. Yes, we know that Celie wants her freedom and the strength to leave her husband, but even she doesn’t know what she’d do next if she ever got it.
Celie is a pathetically weak protagonist who does precious little to impact the plot. Every major thing she ever gets or does is pretty much handed to her by stronger characters in the supporting cast or by outright deus ex machina. With one exception.
Yes, Celie does eventually make her big stand against her irredeemably worthless husband. The problem is that her single biggest contribution to the plot comes at the midpoint. If she had done this half an hour in, it might’ve been the catalyst for a grand journey of self-discovery and the start of a new life. If she had done this near the end at the climax, it would’ve been a fantastic culmination of her development arc. But because it happens in the middle, the film peaks too early and it shoots the pacing all to hell.
What hurts the pacing even worse is the time span. The movie starts in 1909 and it ends in freaking 1947. The time jumps are so many and so long that every time a major plot development happens, we have to jump ahead five or ten years to see what comes of it, if anything. It kills the momentum stone-cold dead, especially when it means undoing or stalling whatever precious character development we’ve made up to that point.
Even with the themes, it feels like we keep taking one step forward and one step back. There’s a scene that briefly implies a bisexual romance between Celie and Shug (that’s the Taraji P. Henson character), and nothing is ever done with it. We get a whole subplot implying generational trauma between Ol’ Mister Johnson, Mister, and Harpo (a grandfather/father/son set, respectively played by Gossett Jr., Domingo, and Hawkins), and it goes nowhere.
But my personal favorite example concerns Sofia (Brooks), arguably the character with the biggest chip on her shoulder and one of Celie’s earliest role models for courage. But then Sofia runs afoul of the White Man. After spending half the movie establishing Celie’s need to stand up for herself, Sofia demonstrates the unique dangers that come with fighting back while black. There’s talking back to a domestic abuser, and then there’s talking back to a rich white person.
It’s a genuinely fascinating spin on the theme, nuanced and empathetic in its portrayal of systemic racism. Too bad the film drops it entirely within five minutes, and with barely any consequences at all.
The Color Purple (2023) is a beautiful movie with a stellar cast and marvelous musical numbers, all in the service of busted pacing and a broken plot. Between the inconsistent tone, the stagnant development arcs, and the drawn-out plot with those giant gaping time jumps, the movie can’t pick a theme and nurture it into a truly powerful message.
There’s enough talent and effort here that I can imagine how someone might interpret this as an uplifting work of feminist cinema and black empowerment. More power to them. Personally, this movie lost me at some point in the first half while I was waiting for the plot to kick into gear. I can recommend a home video viewing — especially for the awards completionists — but any movie coming out in this crowded time of year would have to be far and away better to warrant a big-screen viewing.