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‘The Color Purple’ (2023) 4K UHD (Blu-ray review)

Warner Bros.

Honestly, I was skeptical when I heard that The Color Purple had been made into a musical. The Steven Spielberg/Quincy Jones version from 1985 was a staple of my young cable viewing days and has a special place in my heart.

I assumed the latest film version would go the way of many modern musicals al la Baz Luhrmann; relying on style, fashion, and an anachronistic pop-laden soundtrack that would sell tickets.

Boy, was I wrong.

Blitz Bazawule’s (Black as King) film adaptation of The Color Purple Broadway musical is cinematic. This is no surprise with Dan Lausten (Shape of Water) as his cinematographer.

The filmmakers have created a modern musical film that calls back to musicals of the 1930s and 1940s.

Bazawule and his creative team are still true to Alice Walker’s story of a black woman in 1920s rural Georgia who survives rape and domestic abuse to become an independent woman.

The spectacle of the dance and music never takes away from the power of the story. Story and musical spectacle somehow manage to live harmoniously on the screen.

I credit that to the amazing cast.

Fantasia Barrino reprises her role from the stage production as Celie. Her journey from a frightened victim of repeated abuse to an independent survivor comes in stages. With each relationship she forms with the women in her life, Celie learns how to be herself. You watch Barrino’s Celie bloom. Celie’s two greatest influences are Sofia, her daughter-in-law, and Shug Avery, her husband’s mistress and eventually her own lover.

Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black) is a stand-out in a vast cast of talented performers. She is Sofia, heart and soul, and the filmmakers were smart to have her revise the role from the Broadway revival. Her voice is clear and powerful. No autotune should ever touch it. When she sings you feel it in your bones, just the way Sofia should be.

Taraji P. Henson’s (Empire) Shug has a magic about her that goes beyond overt sexuality and makes it easy to see how she enthralls those around her, including Miss Celie.

Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead) brings to life the “Mister” Albert Johnson, Celie’s abusive husband. It’s difficult to see Mister as anything but the villain, but Domingo’s performance of abuser turned repentant man helps drive home the message that both making a stand and leaving room for forgiveness can motivate change in even those whose souls we believe are lost.

The music itself is a journey through the musical history of the early 20th century. It showcases the influence Black musicians had on all modern music. All of today’s pop music is built on this Legacy. From Bluegrass to Blues, Big Band Swing to Jazz and Soul, each genre of music is given its due. It frames the passing of time and gives texture and background to Miss Celie’s world. The music is brought to life not just by the cast’s stellar vocals, but also by Fatima Robinson’s innovative choreography. Ms. Robinson uses a combination of old steps that complement the music while adding modern-day movement. Each dance sequence feels thoughtful and intentional.

There are key scenes in this new version of The Color Purple that feel the filmmakers took note of pivotal moments in the 1985 version and actively chose to create something completely new. A moment that struck me was when Shug seeks forgiveness from her father. The new version handles this beautiful moment with a soft touch, both cinematically and musically. It would be almost impossible to go toe-to-toe with Margret Avery’s Shug and her all-out belting of “Maybe Gods Tryin’ To Tell You Somethin’” with a full congregation singing in support, so Bazawule and company do not try to. Henson’s Shug sings a soulful version of the song only to her father, an intimate moment for just the two of them to find reconciliation.  In comparison, it is a quiet moment, but just as powerful.

Extras include several brief featurettes including one focusing on the musical performances.

While The Color Purple musical film is not ruthless in the interpretation of its characters as the original source materials, it still holds the heart and integrity of the original story. This new version softens the edges, creating a film that can be shared with a younger crowd, fostering conversation about the culture of the time and (for better or worse) how it relates to where we are today.

 

 

 

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