‘The Color Purple’ Review: Broadway Adaptation Stuns With Powerhouse Performances, Crowd-Pleasing Numbers

Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks standout amongst a powerful ensemble cast

"The Color Purple"
"The Color Purple" (Credit: Warner Bros.)

Nearly 40 years ago Alice Walker unleashed “The Color Purple” amidst an avalanche of unyielding criticism coupled with lionizing commentary which has accompanied the project into additional incarnations on film and the Broadway stage.

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, the backlash in 1985 was swift and all encompassing. In addition to banning the book in schools across the country for its sexual content, and situations of abuse and domestic violence, Norman Mailer and feminist Gloria Steinem called the book a near-criminal assault on black family life and heterosexual relationships. Upon the film’s release, author James Baldwin accused its director, Steven Spielberg, of mangling the poetic vision of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Its cast on Broadway and in the original feature film are now legendary, and it seems as if history may repeat itself with this reimagined version marrying the musical, book and film adaptation. Trust me, this is not your mama’s “The Color Purple.”

Inspired, in part, by a story that Walker’s sister told her about a love triangle involving their grandfather, this film adaptation has director Blitz Bazawule taking the audience on a journey of generational trauma through the lens of character Celie (Fantasia Barrino), Shug (Taraji P. Henson), Sofia (Danielle Brooks), Harpo (Corey Hawkins) and Mister (Colman Domingo) told entirely from Celie’s point of view and imagination.

The sheer joy of the first ten minutes will make your heart sing. The mood is set with some good ole’ banjo picking, followed by a haunting sunlit field of Georgian trees where a young Nettie (Halle Bailey) and young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) sit atop a branch sharing a sweet rendition of “Huckleberry Pie,” immediately followed by Grammy winner Tamela Mann swirling her anointed vocals onto the song “Mysterious Ways.” This is all complemented by thrilling choreography from award-winning choreographer Fatima Robinson.

Bailey and Mpasi create a thematic sisterhood and powerful performance that permeates the remainder of the film with neither character feeling like victims but rather young women acutely aware of their reality and dreaming to change their outcome through reading and acknowledgement of their African lineage. Deon Cole, mostly known from his recurring role on the hit Peabody Award-winning ABC sitcom “Black-ish” is unrecognizably evil as Celie’s father. Steely and stoic, Cole will surely be a much sought after commodity for more dramatic turns moving forward.

Reprising her Tony nominated role as Sofia, Danielle Brooks straddles humor and drama with meticulous precision, stealing every scene. Her powerful jail cell performance and dinner table scene, alongside many poignant moments with Corey Hawkins as her husband, Harpo, and her powerful show-stopping rendition of “Hell No” will make her hard to ignore this awards season.

Fantasia Barrino (who also starred in the Broadway production) declared during a recent post screening Q&A, when she walked away from the role on Broadway she would never revisit Celie. However, it was Bazawule’s reimaging of the story from Celie’s imagination and making her a fighter with a voice that coaxed Barrino back one last time. Her Celie is so understated and raw that by the time she sings “I’m Here” the audience erupts in thunderous applause for a life that has endured, suffered, and is now on an unforgettable journey to being triumphant in life and love.

Colman Domingo may see himself as a double Oscar nominee following in the footsteps of Jaime Foxx and Al Pacino for playing the title role in “Rustin” and Mister in “The Color Purple.” As Mister, Domingo feels a little more empathetic than the gruff characterization in the book and original adaptation.

His scene with Celie in her shop (while Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue” softly permeates in the background) makes him a shell of the man once known for beating her into oblivion. It’s a stark contrast from the same man who arrives on the scene playing banjo and attempting to woo Nettie from atop a horse. Domingo’s range within this one film is astoundingly resonant and layered making Mister a character of many colors and moods.

Former Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson sparkles and shines as Shug Avery. Henson’s characterization is sexy, smart, comical and vulnerable, which is blatantly obvious as she shares in a stripped-down, intimate scene with her father (played by Tony-winning actor David Allen Grier).

Corey Hawkins has a small, but pivotal role as Harpo, and makes him humorously sweet and supportive despite the way the men in his family have encouraged him unapologetically to disrespect women for control.

All of this works due to the amazingly gifted direction of Bazawule’s, a skillfully crafted screenplay from Marcus Gardley, stunning cinematography from Dan Laustsen and a score by the incomparable Kris Bowers, who does a wonderful job of marrying a new score with selections from the Broadway production.

A perfect example is when Mpasi, with strength and tenacity after seeing her child, executes the song “She Be Mine” through a chain gang of men and a flowing waterfall of women scrubbing laundry on washboards illustrating the grass roots of Celie’s journey into becoming reborn with a sense of renewal. Or, when Corey Hawkins (Harpo) breaks out into a rendition of “Working” while building a home on the swamp waters.

Bazawule seamlessly transitions from one moment to the next, expediently pacing the film without wearing out its welcome. Placing Celie on a giant record disc with Shug, naked in a tub, sets up the lesbian story line with respect and class. Their relationship is further solidified with a stunning, sophisticated jazz club rendition of “What About Love” set in a movie theatre. It’s a little on the sappy side, yet somehow simple and sweet.

This iteration of “The Color Purple” beautifully honors all the previous genres with respect and reverence, yet makes it palatable for a whole new generation in the 21st-century. With cameos from Whoopi Goldberg, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jon Batiste and Aunjanue Ellis each presence is powerfully understated and welcomed.

Just in time for the holiday season, no matter what you believe spiritually, your soul will soar and be lifted through the words and imagination of Alice Walker. Bring some tissue, you’re going to need more than a few.


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