Alice Walker's iconic novel of African American female endurance, THE COLOR PURPLE, has a new life as a movie-musical. I cannot fault the look of the film, clearly inspired by Julie Dash's iconic DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, nor its production values, cinematography, costumes, or performances. Fantasia Barrino is deeply moving and convincing as the heroine, Celie - a woman we first meet as the victim of her father's sexual abuse. We watch her children abducted, her marriage to the equally abusive Mister (Colman Domingo), and late in life discovery of her sexuality and economic power. By the end of the film she is a late middle-aged woman, with all of the physical change that that implies. She is framed by two other impressive performances. Taraji P Henson plays the renamed Shug Avery - the glamorous nightclub singer who has to reconcile with her faith and father. And Danielle Brooks plays Sofia - Celie's no-nonsense duaghter-in-law who is humbled by a racist white woman.
Every individual element of this film is calculated to impress but I just could not get over the fact that it was a musical, and moreover that the music was not contemporary to the period in which the film is set (the first half of the twentieth century). As a result, whenever the production design and performances pulled me into an emotional space, the anachronistic music pulled me right out. It also didn't help that the director Blitz Bazawule chooses to have the actors lip synch to the ruthlessly studio clean soundtrack. Given that so many scenes are outdoors with the sounds of nature around, I feel this is really a film where it would have been of benefit to have the actors to sing live, as in Tom Hooper's LES MIS, or at least make the songs sound less airless and clean.
The upshot was that I never felt involved with the characters or their story and while I admired it theoretically I was not moved. The original film made me cry, I felt keenly the humbling of Sofia, and the more discreet relationship between Celie and Margaret sizzled with sensuality. I didn't need the awkward intervention of anachronistic music.
THE COLOR PURPLE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 141 minutes. It was released in the US on Christmas Day 2023 and will be released in the UK on January 26th.