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A Fresh Take on Alice Walker’s Novel

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Where do you stand on the 1985 film version of “The Color Purple,” which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but won none? Some feel it wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s story to tell. Others marvel at how a director of the upbringing depicted in “The Fabelmans” managed to recognize and reflect so many aspects of Black culture: the music, the spirituality, the multiple catharses to which it builds. Looking back, Spielberg did justice to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, but he also left room to expand and improve.

Now, nearly four decades later, a rousing new version arrives from director Blitz Bazawule, who collaborated with Beyoncé on her 2020 visual album “Black Is King.” Instead of rejecting what came before, the Ghanian filmmaker embraces and builds upon it, collaborating with Spielberg, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey to update the material for the next generation (all three serve as producers). The main change, apart from a cast with impossibly big shoes to fill, comes from incorporating the songs written for the Broadway musical — which also brings an additional freedom, as those numbers allow the story to transcend the characters’ harsh reality.

Walker’s novel is many things, none more powerful than a reclamation of value, perspective and heritage from a person who’d been told she was worthless. Here, through song, the character of Celie quite literally finds her voice. Set in the farmhouses, churches and small-town world of rural Georgia, early in the 20th century, “The Color Purple” is not a pop musical, relying more on the traditions of gospel, jazz, big band and blues. So it’s fitting that Fantasia Barrino, who is not a traditional pop singer, should have waited all these years to make her big-screen debut as Celie, rather than doing so as Effie White — the plum “Dreamgirls” part that ultimately went to Jennifer Hudson, and for which she was very nearly cast — right after winning “American Idol.”

Barrino’s soul-felt R&B sensibility lends itself to the role, and the patience it took to reach this point mirrors Celie’s long path to finding herself. Barrino may have embodied the character on Broadway 15 years earlier, but the moment is now right, and everyone else in the terrific ensemble seems to have fallen into place around that choice (even the great Whoopi Goldberg, who originated the role on-screen, appears early in the film, as if to give her blessing).

“Dear God,” begins Walker’s novel, which is told in Celie’s voice. She speaks an imperfect English, but shows an unwavering belief in some greater force. In the book, her role as narrator gave readers insight into feelings Goldberg was obliged to internalize in the 1985 film. Through Marcus Gardley’s screenplay, the musical finds a fresh way into Celie’s state of mind, reflecting her faith from the opening gospel number, “Mysterious Ways.”

Celie’s just 14 at the outset (played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi in these scenes), already pregnant with her second child by the man who raised her (Deon Cole). Deprived of both her babies and traded off like an old mule to a tough, inflexible farmer called Mister (Colman Domingo, looming like the Big Bad Wolf over his household), Celie has Cinderella’s burden in reverse, as she’s obliged to care for a household of wicked stepchildren.

Years pass before she learns Mister’s real name, but in the interim, he beats her. His thunderous blows crack like cannon fire, sending Celie flying across the room. Her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) joins her at Mister’s house for a time, only to be thrown out in the middle of the night for fighting back when he climbs into her bed. Among the many tragedies of Celie’s situation, most painful is the way she’s never known any kindness or love besides Nettie’s. By separating the sisters, Mister cuts Celie off from the one source of love she’s known, effectively imprisoning her in a system she has no power to change.

“You Black, you poor, you ugly, you a woman,” Mister spits at Celie, reiterating what she can already feel: all the systems stacked up to crush her spirit. In Walker’s novel, patriarchy weighs every bit as heavy as America’s racist past. Except for one altercation involving the mayor’s white wife (Elizabeth Marvel), and another where a banker is quick to take a Black man’s land, the movie focuses almost entirely on African American characters. Celie is so conditioned to oppression that she advises her own stepson, the relatively benevolent Harpo (Corey Hawkins), to beat his disobedient wife (Danielle Brooks) — a good example of a scene minutely recalibrated for better impact in this telling.

As force-of-nature Sofia, Brooks electrifies in the role that earned Winfrey an Oscar nomination, storming onto the scene to ask Mister for Harpo’s hand. Whereas Celie has never dared to defy authority, Sofia embodies self-respect — that elusive but essential dimension that will ultimately set Celie free. In the meantime, she’s disrespected in her own home, sleeping (and submitting) in a bed where Mister keeps a picture of his mistress, free-spirit jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson bringing “Empire” energy), on his nightstand. When Shug appears — a character grand enough to support multiple entrances — she surprises Celie, unlocking a dimension of her sexuality she didn’t know existed, and which Spielberg could only suggest in 1985.

“The Color Purple” catalogs a staggering amount of trauma, but takes no pleasure in depicting it — that can be challenging in stories where a character is made to suffer for years before relief finally comes. On that front, Bazawule does something surprising: Instead of punishing Mister (whom Celie curses, and whom audiences surely want to see punished), the director treats the long last act of the film as an opportunity for redemption. While Celie is finally enjoying her own independence, Mister takes steps to do right by her.

It’s a satisfying improvement on a script that doesn’t stray too far from Menno Meyjes’ earlier adaptation, apart from radically compressing the Africa-set portion and reshuffling a few other events, including the placement of “Miss Celie’s Blues,” a Quincy Jones song originally written for the 1985 movie. Since this is a musical, Bazawule has the room to add expressionistic flourishes that might have seemed indulgent in a straightforward drama, from dynamic crane shots to situations in which a photograph or mirror becomes a portal into a flashback or fantasy, like Celie’s memory of learning to sew or Shug’s autographed headshot.

Some of these tricks work better than others — as in the bathtub scene, where Celie finds herself standing atop a giant record player — but all work to expand the experience, making “The Color Purple” feel even more monumental than it did in Spielberg’s hands. And that’s saying something, since the director brought such an iconic touch to the material that his choices echo in Bazawule’s approach throughout.

The music (while hardly absent before, and now missing in that roof-raising gospel reunion between Shug and her reverend father, played here by David Alan Grier) is largely what sets this version apart — that and the way it gives Celie a stronger, clearer voice. “I may be Black, I may be poor, I may even be ugly, but I’m here,” she asserts a full reel before finding the words to put her newfound self-love into song.

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