The Color Purple is simply brilliant. It’s bold and uplifting, with lots of heartbreak, too. It’s a gorgeous-sounding musical about perseverance and overcoming, heightened by extraordinary performances from a talented powerhouse of a cast including Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, and Corey Hawkins.
This film is vibrant and stirring, a balance of sunlight and shadows and highs and lows. It’s got a profoundly enduring quality that ensures this second film adaptation of The Color Purple by Alice Walker will be a classic.
The Color Purple as an unapologetic musical
This new adaptation of The Color Purple is an unapologetic musical, though you wouldn’t think so from the marketing. Director Blitz Bazawule takes us into the world of music in the film’s first moments with a joyful song punctuated by darker moments. This sets up a promise (fulfilled) for the film’s ultimate tone of empowerment, overcoming sorrow, and gaining agency and power.
The themes of The Color Purple (like the novel and the original film before it) are heavy: including religion, race, domestic violence, and sexuality. However, the resilience and triumph of Celie (Fantasia Barrino) in the South in the 1900s is uplifting. These themes are woven together in the screenplay by Marcus Gardley, and the original Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker.
It is impossible to talk more about The Color Purple without highlighting the stunning performances by the ensemble cast, specifically, the trio of actresses we spend the most time with. Fantasia Barrino, as Celie, is a superstar with a powerful voice that reminds people why, almost 20 years ago, her music brought people to tears as we rooted for her on American Idol. Barrino’s performance of Celie in The Color Purple is moving, too. She is the stellar core of the film.
Although Barrino’s performance makes the film on so many levels, this film would not be the same without the standout performances of the rest of the cast, especially the supporting actresses. Like the sisterhood that sustains Celie, they help give this film life. Danielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson own the screen every time they’re on it. Brooks’ portrayal of Sofia is powerful and so memorable. Brooks is a scene stealer and should win awards for her performance.
Taraji P. Henson’s Shug Avery is oxygen to the story. Henson brings the blues singer to life with dazzle. Henson grabs your attention, and like Celie (and everyone else, too), you can understand why, in the story, people are entranced by Avery’s siren song and fall in love with her.
Henson wields Avery’s power with aplomb and too, should win awards for her performance in this movie. From Cookie Lyon on Empire, to Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, and now to Shug Avery in The Color Purple, Henson has a brilliant range as an actress and fully inhabits the characters she portrays on screen.
The Color Purple is a musical that showcases how transformative, essential, and motivational a piece of music can be. To the characters, it’s how they survive, too. In this film, words are not enough for the characters to express their emotions. For Celie especially, songs help her (and us as the audience) process her journey. The music is memorable; again, this is a testament to the skill of the actors and actresses giving their all to these vocal performances.
Barrino’s “I’m Here” is a grand showstopping tune with staying power and will win awards. If you didn’t already think Barrino was one of the greats, “I’m Here” should make it apparent. (And in some ways, too, there’s a deeper layer of meta-commentary with the song.)
Danielle Brooks’ “Hell No!” is an incredible powerhouse of an anthem. The music to The Color Purple is full of soul sorrow and bursting with joy, too; it’s just incredible. There are notable differences between the songs in this version of the story and the songs from the Broadway musical, but the songs still support the story and the characters’ journeys.
Other performances in the story too, “Young Celie” by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, “Young Nellie” by Halle Bailey, and H.E.R. as Squeak deserve note too for their excellence.
Other standout performances in The Color Purple
Of transgressors against Celie, we spend the most time with her husband, Mister. Colman Domingo does a standout job. (Though the shadow of her dad looms large, physically and emotionally.) Mister is the primary physical manifestation of the violence of the world against Celie. Domingo brings visceral power to the role and repentance as Mister’s role in the story turns. The movie would not be the same without Domingo’s strong performance.
David Alan Grier, as Reverend Avery and Shug’s father, has moving moments too. Deon Cole, as Alfonso, otherwise known as Celie’s father, deserves note for bringing the character to screen. Although his screen time is limited, we feel his heavy presence throughout the film because of a memorable performance.
Surprises that link past and present and a note on worldbuilding
In an age where social media often lays bare the details of a film with great spoilers even before its premiere, The Color Purple still has surprises. Bazawule and The Color Purple boldly sneak moments into the film that are thrilling homages to previous stories. The surprises in The Color Purple link the past and now and are very satisfying.
Although The Color Purple is physically and emotionally brought to life by the cast, directors, and cinematography, the world-building done through production design, costumes, hair and makeup and more makes this film iconic.
The Color Purple spans decades, and because of the skillful work of production designer Paul D. Austerberry and costume designers Rashad Corey and Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, it’s seamless. After the movie has finished, stay and watch the credits to appreciate all the talent below the line that shines too with their skill.
Final thoughts on The Color Purple
Some moments around Celie’s ultimate turn towards empowerment could have benefitted from some more explanation on screen, especially given that so much of the film’s time was spent focused on Celie’s survival in such traumatic circumstances.
But at over 2 hours already and with heavy themes, it’s understandable why that was where the filmmakers chose to be economical with that part of the story. The film is so well done and paced that anything small that bumps you narratively isn’t something you dwell on because the film shines as a whole.
The Color Purple is worth seeing on the big screen in a theater full of people. It’s simply brilliant with powerful performances from the ensemble cast, with breakouts from the movie’s lead Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, and Taraji P. Henson.
This film is a soul-stirring instant classic. It’s a highlight of 2023 and beyond. The Color Purple arrives in theaters on December 25, 2023. Do you plan to see this one in theaters? Let us know what you think of it when you do on social media @mycosmiccircus or The Cosmic Circus Discord.