Movie review: The Color Purple (2023)

Fantasia Barrino’s first film

My wife and I saw the remake of the movie The Color Purple on December 26. It opened on Christmas Day and is likely the earliest I’ve ever seen a film in its theatrical run.

Two things ran through my head afterward. While I had seen the original 1985 version in the cinema – nominated for 11 Oscars and winning exactly none – a factoid I did not need to look up – I have a difficult time recalling more than a feeling of mostly despair. The director of that film, Steven Spielberg, is an executive producer of the new one.

I get what Taraji P. Henson said about the earlier take. “’The first movie missed culturally. We don’t wallow in the muck. We don’t stay stuck in our traumas. We laugh, we sing, we go to church, we dance, we celebrate, we fight for joy, we find joy, we keep it. That’s all we have.’”

Black joy doesn’t seem to dominate the media narrative. When I watched Making Black Grapevine, as I described here, I realized how much it’s often missing.


Conversely, the movie was so hyped I was nervous. A star of the film appeared every day on CBS Mornings the week before the film opened, plus Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer of this iteration and a star of the 1985 take.  My wife assumed it was a Paramount film  (CBS is a Paramount Global company.) But no.

I assume it was because Gayle King, the longest-tenured of the hosts, is BFF with Oprah. To be sure, I got some insights. Henson was nervous about singing in the film, and Fantasia Barrino, who was in the Broadway musical in 2007, was worried about acting in her first film. I never saw the musical.

Wikipedia: “BroadwayWorld revealed that the film will not be a direct copy-and-paste adaptation of the stage musical, with elements from the novel and the 1985 film also being featured, including ‘Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister),’ the song sung by the character of Shug Avery in the 1985 film. 13 songs from the musical were cut from the film…  while a song cut from the stage production, titled ‘She Be Mine,’ was reinstated for this film.”

Ah, the film

We liked the movie. It looks good, and most of the songs were compelling. The balance of music to narrative seemed reasonable. The acting and singing by Barrino as Celie, Henson as Shug Avery, and Danielle Brooks as Sofia were fine. The rest of the cast was strong, including Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, and David Alan Grier. Colman Domingo, who stars as the heroic pacifist Bayard Rustin in the Netflix film Rustin, is the brutal Albert “Mister” Johnson here.

The reviews were 87% positive with the critics and 95% in Rotten Tomatoes. One of the negative reviews was from Lisa Johnson Mandell of “Just in time for Christmas – a jaunty movie musical about incest, rape and abuse. The musical numbers are gorgeous, but confusing and tone-deaf. They trivialize the gravity of truly unconscionable crimes and the people who commit them.”

This is an interesting concern. If the 1985 film was too dour, is the 2023 reimagining too… celebratory? As a couple of critics opined, is the 1982 book by Alice Walker unfilmable?

Or is the power of forgiveness for even these atrocities stronger than despair? I saw an interview on CBS News an interview of an Israeli man whose parents were murdered on October 7 who was seeking peace, not vengeance. The capacity for grace cannot be overestimated. So, I’m willing to accept the “happy ending” here.

The Color Purple: screen to stage

Cynthia Erivo as Celie in the Broadway revival
I never finished reading Alice Walker’s powerful 1982 novel The Color Purple, though I had read good chunks of it.

The movie came out in late 1985, so I would have seen it in the first three months of the following year. I thought it was strong, powerful, and occasionally difficult to watch. Danny Glover played Mister/Albert, who was a brute. Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson, Margaret Avery and Shug Avery, and, surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey as Sofia were quite good, as was the rest of the cast.

The film garnered 11 Academy Award nominations, including for those three women, winning zero, making it the film with the most noms with no Oscars. Goldberg and director Steven Spielberg did win the Golden Globes, and the film was named best drama.

Then there was the first Broadway production which ran from December 2005 to the end of February 2008, nominated for 11 Tonys, and winning one, LaChanze as Celie. Renée Elise Goldsberry, later of Hamilton fame, played Celie’s sister Nettie. The touring company production ended a couple years later.

The musical was revived at the end of 2015 and closed early in 2017. It was nominated for four Tonys, and won Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, Cynthia Erivo as Celie.

The touring show started on October 17, 2017 in Baltimore. But wait. What did I see on October 8 at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, featuring “director John Doyle’s deceptively simple set design, a towering array of angled, broken barn boards and mismatched wooden chairs that rise up from the stage to the overhead fly-space”?

Technically, it was a preview show, working out the bugs in the story and technical problems. I’m told the cast in the earlier production was quite large, but only 17 in this iteration. The story is strong, especially in the first half. The songs are very inspirational, especially in the second half, and performed well throughout.

A couple actors weren’t miked well, and I couldn’t really make out what they were saying.

A bigger problem for me, though, was the transformation of Mister/Albert from Act 1’s bully to Act 2’s saint. It didn’t feel earned, and as my wife noted, when a child is left in hs care, she worried about the baby’s welfare, unnecessarily so, as it turns out.

I’m sure that the technical issues will be fixed. Whether the storyline will be, I don’t know. Still, even with that caveat, it was well worth seeing.

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