I’ve mentioned in two recent posts some particular shortfalls in the adaptation process. The first, as it related to Freud’s Last Session, was the fact that if you adapt a stage show to the screen, you have to make it look and feel like it’s not a stage show, otherwise you lose any semblance of a cinematic identity. The second, noted in this month’s TFINYW column entry on the upcoming Mean Girls remake, is that even when good and competent, there has yet to be a single film in the ever-growing subgenre of “Movies Based on Musicals Based on Movies” that has surpassed the original picture.
Both of those issues come front and center with the new version of The Color Purple, based on the Broadway musical adapted from Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film interpretation of Alice Walker’s celebrated novel (*catches breath*), as well as a couple more that are entirely owned by this particular production. Now, let me be clear when I state that this is a good movie. There are even times when it’s exemplary and joyous to behold. However, those moments only serve to balance out some severe errors to the point that a film campaigning for major hardware this Awards Season only merits a mild recommendation.
The first misfire is that the film basically has no identity independent of its predecessors. Sadly, I think the powers that be over at Warner Bros. realized this, and thus the project was advertised in a patently false manner. When you watch the trailer, you’ll twice see text on screen — once in giant letters and again beneath the title page — that this is “a bold new take” on the story. Um, no, it’s a film version of the musical based on the previous film, or to be extremely generous, a blend of the two. Right off the bat you’re lying. A new take would by definition involve something fundamentally different from any previous iteration, and the use of the term “bold” is misplaced because that’s a subjective assessment. I or any other critic could call it “bold,” if I felt like it, or I could just as easily call this “a rehashed, run-of-the-mill, uninspired take” and be just as factually accurate. The only difference is I’m reacting after seeing the finished product, and they are trying to spin a hypothetical opinion as truth for the purposes of selling it to you. One method is honest, the other is not.
It goes further. During the course of the preview the text boasts that the film comes “From Producers Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and Quincy Jones,” all of whom had heavy involvement in the first movie. There’s nothing wrong with pitching that, as it helps to associate them as a means of nostalgia and a subconscious transitive that them working on the first bit of quality must mean that they ensured the same this time around. But you know whose names you don’t see until the last five second of this? Marcus Gardley and Blitz Bazawule. Who are they? Only the screenwriter and director, the people who actually made the freaking movie.
Why shunt them to the side if they’re the creative forces behind this picture? Well, there are only two reasonable conclusions to draw. One is that the movie isn’t that good, and thus you want to promote the people who signed the checks in hopes of that very subliminal dot connection. The second is that they weren’t the creative forces at all, merely stand-ins who didn’t have nearly the control that they should have. Bazawule in particular gets hamstrung by this, as watching the film, it becomes clear that he was director in title only. This is a Spielberg project through and through, including an absolutely obscene amount of his trademark Spotlight Fetish, with so many shots unnaturally backlit that about a third of the scenes look like the cast is in silhouette. There is nothing in this picture that screams, “A Blitz Bazawule Film!” Everything is subsumed by Spielberg’s style, which is fine if that’s what you’re into. But again, the “bold new take” is to put another director’s name on something that the original film’s creator was orchestrating, ostensibly so there’s someone else to blame if it goes tits up.
As to Gardley’s script, it’s all over the place. The multiple time jumps in the story don’t feel nearly as smooth as they did in the original version, with absolutely jarring changes in setting occurring quite suddenly and with no consistent tone, and some the actors only being aged up once when transitioning from childhood to adulthood. For example, Corey Hawkins takes on the fairly difficult role of Harpo, and we see him as a young adult after the second major advancement. Before then he’s played in young form by Jamaal Avery, Jr. However, this film takes place over the course of 35 years, and Harpo looks exactly the same in 1917 as he does in 1947. The same goes for Fantasia Barrino in the lead role of Celie. She’s played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi during the first act, which gives heavy focus to her life with sister Nettie (Halle Bailey, later played by Ciara). We spend a lot of time with Mpasi and Bailey, then we jump to Barrino for the rest of the film, and she never ages at all. By contrast, those who know the story are aware of Nettie’s circumstances, to the point that there’s a believable progression for her when she reenters.
The basic plot points of the book and original movie remain intact, but some odd diversions are made for the sake of the musical interpretation. For instance, Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson, outstanding as ever) is normally introduced by coming to town as a detour from her music career because she’s ill. Instead, this time it’s a complete show-stopping number to establish just how awesome she is and how she’s the object of every man’s affection. The schism with her pastor father (David Alan Grier) is rendered as an afterthought that’s eventually “resolved” by a brief cute moment where they sit at a piano together. It’s fine, I suppose, but it utterly siphons off the impact from her and Celie’s first encounter, and thus Gardley must manufacture other reasons for their eventual friendship. Similarly, the abuse inflicted by Harpo (and tacitly instigated by Celie) upon his wife Sofia (Danielle Brooks, I’ll get to her shortly) is reduced to a single song rather than the actual prolonged behavior that prompts her departure. Some of these weird story beats become so encompassing that by the time Squeak (Gabriella Wilson, aka H.E.R.) asserts her own agency, I had to remind myself that she was even a character, because before that point she had a two-second name-check and one shot of giving stink-eye at Harpo’s juke joint. When you have to sit there and go, “Oh yeah, you’re actually important to this whole thing” to a beloved character, you know something’s gone awry.
This feeds into the core problem, though, that this very much plays like a musical theatre production rather than a film. The time jumps feel like the interludes in between scenes where the crew changes the scenery. Several major numbers take place on what are easily noticed hardwood floors like that of an actual stage. A couple of the songs — like Celie’s triumphant ballad “I’m Here” — actually pause afterward for an audience applause break before continuing the action. The wedding scene between Harpo and Sofia is capped off by a marching band that literally comes out of the wings, as an establishing wide shot shows them nowhere in the church. They just enter from the sides. But worst of all, in this film’s attempt to present itself as something of a hybrid of the original film and the Broadway show, the tones of the story and music are almost completely incompatible, making it so that the set pieces mostly feel isolated and outside the narrative. It’s altogether ironic that one of the original songs shoehorned into the movie, “Keep it Movin’” — created entirely to give Halle Bailey a feature (along with Mpasi) so it can get nominated for an Oscar — repeats the title like a mantra while bringing the proceedings to a dead stop for four minutes.
That’s a lot of bad stuff, I’ll grant, but the movie is saved by the elements that are right on the money. The costuming is immaculate, with the period dress showing the progression of time far more than the performances, makeup jobs, or the editing. Also, the choreography is some of the best I’ve seen in a while. This is one of the ways that this felt like a Spielberg production in a good way. I wasn’t a fan of his remake of West Side Story, but the dance sequences, coupled with the natural flow of the camera movements, were on point throughout. The same is true here, upping the ante on its spiritual predecessor on that front. It’s really well done, particularly in the big opening “Mysterious Ways” sequence. The song itself leaves me a bit wanting, but the presentation is appropriately immersive.
Then there’s “Hell No.” This is Sofia’s big rebuttal to Harpo’s abuse, and it’s gorgeous. Not only does Danielle Brooks give a nomination-worthy performance, stealing every single scene she’s in with her larger-than-life personality, but this anthem of agency sums up in three scant minutes every ounce of pathos and courage that Walker’s enduring tale stands for. It’s one of the best scenes of 2023 cinema full stop.
Really, the entire cast does a great job. Brooks and Henson are the standouts, but everyone brings it. Colman Domingo is appropriately intimidating and cruel as Mister, and it’s his committed performance that makes you believe his eventual redemption. There’s a campaign push for him to get a Best Actor nod for Rustin (I’ll get to that in a future DownStream column), but a Supporting hat tip here wouldn’t be uncalled for. Louis Gossett, Jr. playing Ol’ Mister makes for a surprising bit of comic relief, while Deon Cole, Jon Batiste, and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor all give strong turns in limited roles. As for Bailey, while her manufactured number was counterintuitive, I get why it was done from a creative standpoint. She can sing the phonebook and she’s not playing a mermaid in a different blasphemous remake, so for once she can be judged fairly, and she acquits herself admirably.
Then, of course, there’s Fantasia Barrino. I’m no fan of American Idol, or really any singing competition show (though I’ll admit I did buy Javier Colon’s album after the first season of The Voice), but she’s always been one of my favorites, mostly because she eschewed the pop music machine after her victory in Season 3 to pursue her own ambitions, including Broadway. That was nearly 20 years ago, and she’s had an amazing career, largely on her own terms. This is her feature film debut, and she handles the weight of Celie’s plight quite well. It’s not a powerhouse performance, but it doesn’t need to be. The character goes through so much heartache and pain here, something Fantasia definitely gets across, that if she were to oversell it the whole thing would ring hollow. She maintains a balance, suffering her slings and arrows until she can wail out “I’m Here” and get the catharsis we all want for her. That’s incredibly disciplined, and it ensures that the overarching themes of hope and resilience shine through, even in the movie’s lesser moments.
I haven’t said all that much about the actual plot of the film, mostly because I’m assuming you’re all familiar with it, either by reading Walker’s novel or seeing the 1985 film. And really, if there’s one summary sin for this movie, it’s trying to tug at the nostalgia strings (including having a cameo from Whoopi Goldberg) while attempting to assert itself as a replacement version. If you’ve never seen, read, or heard of The Color Purple before, this will probably be one of the best films of the year for you, even when it really does look like a filmed stage show. And sadly, with a lot of remakes, that is the intent. The idea is to make you put forth money again for this “bold new take” that vaguely reminds you of what you love, rather than just letting you enjoy what you already have. That’s why I’m against remakes in general. That’s also why, like every other musical reboot before it, this is a good film, but it pales in comparison to what’s already been done. This will never supplant the original film or the novel in our hearts, so the question is always begged as to why we bother in the first place, especially when the final product does everything it can to make it so the people ostensibly at the helm don’t even get the chance to give their own interpretation.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of musicalized remakes? Seriously, how great is Danielle Brooks? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!