The Color Purple

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


Y’know how sometimes when playing a game you think you could have done better, so you call a “redo”?

That’s kinda what the new movie version of “The Color Purple” is.

Not that the first one wasn’t pretty darn good. After all, the 1985 Steven Spielberg film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards – including Best Picture, Best Actress (Whoopi Goldberg), Best Supporting Actress (Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey), and Best Adapted Screenplay. It didn’t win any of them, but it went on to receive four Golden Globe nominations, with Goldberg winning Best Actress in a Drama. And Spielberg scored a Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement.

Not too shabby, right?

But here we go again, with a new musical that’s backed by Oprah Winfrey (co-star of the original film and producer of the stage version), Steven Spielberg (producer and director of the original film), Quincy Jones (producer and musical director of the original film), and Scott Sanders (producer of the stage version).

Like the stage version and the original film, this too is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning and National Book Award-winning epistolary novel about Celie, a poor 14-year-old African-American girl living in rural Georgia in the early 1900s. It is a coming-of-age novel filtered through the dark lens of the black experience.

This decades-spanning tale of love and resilience reflects one woman’s journey to independence. Celie faces many hardships, but ultimately finds “extraordinary strength and hope in the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood.”

The New York Times Book Review called it a “striking and consummately well-written novel.” But the book faced some controversy, criticized for its negative depiction of Black men and graphic violence against women.

Nonetheless, Walker’s novel was named a PBS Great American Reads Top 100 Pick. And BBC News included it on a list of the 100 Most Influential Novels.

Also, Roger Ebert called ”The Color Purple” the Best Film of 1985 and later included it in his book, “The Great Movies.” He wrote: “I can see its flaws more easily than when I named it the best film of 1985, but I can also understand why it moved me so deeply, and why the greatness of some films depends not on their perfection or logic, but on their heart.”

So why a remake?

The idea to revisit Celie’s journey onscreen – this time, as a musical – was prompted by the runaway success of the 2015 Broadway revival. With powerful performances by Cynthia Erivo and Danielle Brooks, the stage production won two Tony awards. And its cast recording won a Grammy.

“This film couldn’t have happened without the original, and couldn’t have happened without Steven Spielberg allowing it to happen,” says producer Oprah Winfrey. He still held the film rights.

“We’ve been asking him for several years,” she said, “for the OK to do a musical remake of the original film.”

“What made me say ‘yes’ was your production of ‘The Color Purple’ musical on Broadway, which I thought was extraordinary,” Spielberg told Oprah. “I didn’t really know if ‘The Color Purple’ had another movie in it. But you and the songwriters, and that cast proved that there was another iteration that could actually stand on its own.”

“I didn’t see why it needed to be remade – that was just my honest opinion at first,” admits Blitz Bazawule (co-director of Beyoncé’s “Black Is King”). “But in revisiting Walker’s book, I found a different way into the roots of the character’s self-realization.”

He says, “Celie had a real imagination, and perhaps that’s how she was able to deal with all the hurt she was going through. I felt that if I could really lean into that – and be proximate to her joy, her pain, her isolation – it would be a strong and worthwhile contribution to not only the canon of ‘The Color Purple’ but also the medium of musicals.”

“Exploring interiority by way of magical realism” was a storytelling strategy that Bazawule had already perfected in his 2018 Ghanaian-set feature “The Burial of Kajo.”

His take on “The Color Purple” stars Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, Corey Hawkins, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, Louis Gossett Jr., David Alan Grier, and Fantasia Barrino (as Celie in her film feature film debut). Brooks and Barrino reprise their roles from the stage musical.

The soundtrack features songs by Alicia Keys, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Megan Thee Stallion, Coco Jones, Keyshia Cole, Jorja Smith, Mary Mary, and Missy Elliott, as well as Halle Bailey, H.E.R and Ciara. The film’s score was composed by Kris Bowers, whose previous work includes “Green Book” and “King Richard.”

“Anytime we felt like the film was plunging too long into tragedy, we wanted to do something organic to lift the audience up,” adds Marcus Gardley, the playwright and poet who adapted the script. The new movie escapes into joy with its musical numbers, tracking Celie’s emotional journey without being overwhelmed by all her horrific traumas.

Gardley relates, “My mother teasingly says to me, ‘If you mess up this movie, don’t come home.’”

“Alice Walker visited us on the set and asked to see what we had been shooting,” Gardley tells the story. “After showing her a take, I heard this loud sobbing and felt hands hugging me from behind. She laid her head on me and kept saying the same thing over again: ‘This is what I always hoped it would be.’”

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