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The Color Purple: Fantasia Barrino Leads Empowering Musical Update

@Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Losing love can lead to harrowing heartbreak, but finding inner strength and resilience can guide people to eventually rediscover endearment and joy. Celie Harris-Johnson, the protagonist of the successful The Color Purple franchise, certainly knows that pain in the new screen adaptation.

Torn apart from her sister and her children in her adolescence in the coming-of-age period drama, Celie faces many hardships in her life. But she ultimately learns to find extraordinary strength in the unbreakable bonds of a new kind of sisterhood throughout her adulthood.

The Color Purple was directed by Grammy Award-nominated filmmaker-musician, Blitz Bazawule (Black is King). The musical film was written by Marcus Gardley.

The movie is based the on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel by Alice Walker and the Tony Award-winning musical stage play of the same name. The new drama is the second film adaptation of the novel, following the 1985 feature directed by Steven Spielberg.

The Color Purple, Danielle Brooks

@Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Like its on-screen predecessor, the new movie was produced by Spielberg and honorary EGOT winner, Quincy Jones. The producing duo was joined Oprah Winfrey, who made her film acting debut in the original feature.

The Color Purple begins by chronicling the close bond between Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Nettie (Halle Bailey), two young sisters who do everything together in rural Georgia in 1909. Celie is pregnant with her second child from her father. As with the first baby, upon giving birth, the second child is taken from her custody.

Soon after her second birth, Celie’s father sends her to marry to “Mister” (Colman Domingo), who has several unruly children of his own. Nettie is also eventually sent to live with Celie and her new husband. However,  Mister soon sends Nettie away and threatens to shoot her if she ever comes back, after she rebukes his advances.

As the story progresses over the next few decades, the grown Celie (Fantasia Barrino) is shown to be living a lonely life. As she suffers from physical and emotion abuses from Mister, she hopes that she’ll eventually receive a note from her long-lost sister.

Celie experiences occasional joyful moments along the way, often from the people she meets over the years, such as Sofia (Danielle Brooks), a strong woman who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins). Celie also closely bonds with Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a free-spirited salon singer and lapsed Christian who Mister has had a longtime affair with during his marriage. With the help of the women who enter her life as an adult, Celie finds the strength to break free from her strained marriage.

The new screen adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway play most powerfully thrives in the way its musical numbers emphasize Celie’s emotional journey through its lyrics and choreography. Bazawule sets many of the elaborate, spellbinding songs within the protagonist’s imagination, which allows her to give a true feminist cry against injustice, particularly through Barrino’s expressive singing prowess.

The Color Purple, Coleman Domingo@Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Bazawule’s adaptation of the Broadway musical and Walker’s novel also grippingly balances the pain that Celie has endured with the realization that she has the power to take control over her life. Barrino’s performance as the character is just as enticing as her predecessor, Whoopi Goldberg (in a star-making, Oscar-nominated performance in Spielberg’s film).

Through Barrino’s powerful emotions, she highlights Celie’s decades-long determination to emancipate herself from the control of the men in her life. In her feature film acting debut, the Grammy-winning musician infuses a growing sense of self-confidence into her character as she freely expresses herself through her singing.

Barrino’s captivating musical performances are well balanced by the numbers sung by the bold and extroverted supporting female characters, including Sofia and Shug Avery. For example, when the former is subjected to abuse at the hands of Harpo, she retaliates against her husband with the fierce track Hell No.

Meanwhile, while Shug Avery has maintained a longstanding romance with Master, she’s still able to emotionally connect with Celie. The protagonist becomes enthralled with the jazz singer’s ease of expressing her emotions through performing songs. Henson thrives in showing how Shug is a character who excels in always living in the spotlight.

Shug’s outgoing personality offers a powerful balance to Celie’s more quiet, isolated nature. When the latter isn’t singing, she mainly hides her pain in her internal monologue and letters. But after receiving encouragement from her new friend, Celie garners the confidence to defend herself against the cruelty Mister shows her.

The Color Purple‘s emotional musical numbers and character development are visually highlighted by its striking cinematography. Shot by two-time Oscar-nominated Director of Photography Dan Laustsen, the drama subtly emphasize the living conditions Celie endures in rural Georgia during the early 20th century. Whether the characters are performing in a provocatively lit nightclub or singing in fields that appear to loom on forever, the visual representation of the locations are vital element in telling Celie’s transformative journey.

In his alluring adaptation of The Color Purple, Bazawule excels at highlighting the social injustices that women faced in the early 1900s, and how those struggles helped make them bold, fierce and independent. As the latest actress to bring Celie to life, Barrino showcases how the character mustered the courage to fight back against the violations she faced, particularly from her husband and father, through the power of music.

Through the messages that she discovers from the women she meets and bonds with later in life, Celie discovers life for the first time. Through the help of music and feeling supported by Shug, the protagonist finally musters the courage to stand up for herself and appreciate the celebration of life, rather than focusing on the pain. Bazawule’s strength as a director, particularly in guiding the ensemble cast’s emotional and musical performances, make the latest screen iteration of The Color Purple a worthy adaptation of the novel and stage musical.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release The Color Purple exclusively in theaters in North America on December 25.

The Color Purple, Taraji P. Henson

@Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Grade: A-

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Karen Benardello
Karen Benardello
As a life-long fan of films and television shows, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic in 2008. Karen has since been working in the press in New York City, including interviewing film and television casts and crews, writing movie and television news articles and reviewing films and televisions series. Some of her highlights include attending such local events as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and New York Comic-Con, as well as traveling across North America to attend such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival. She has been a member of the Women Film Critics Circle since 2012, and the New York Film Critics Online since 2019.


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