A scene from The Colour Purple
A scene from The Colour Purple

The Color Purple: A moving yet conflicting adaptation of Alice Walker’s book

Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule’s film has iconic and moving moments, but they feel insubstantial when compared to the weight of Alice Walker’s book.
The Colour Purple (English)(3 / 5)

‘Must be banned’, fiercely cherished, denounced—however anyone looks at Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Color Purple has taken on mythic proportions since its publication in 1982. At its heart is the queer love story between Celie, a sexually abused southern Black woman in the early 1900s Segregated America, and a dazzling Blues singer Shug Avery. But The Color Purple was also a traumatic revelation of patriarchy and sexual abuse in Black communities, causing a deep rift in how the book and Steven Speilberg’s 1985 screen adaptation of it were seen. From this contested legacy comes Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule’s cinematic take on The Color Purple (2023) a musical version that sings its way to fresh conversations around the book. 

Bazawule’s adaptation beats out Speilberg’s on many fronts, most significantly in its resplendent centering of Celie (Fantasia Barrino) and Shug’s (Taraji P Henson) love. Their romance is sensual, luscious, and achingly loyal to each other’s tenderest parts. It is equally mesmerising and radical for Black queer romance between older women, set in the Georgia of the 1900s, amid segregation and serial misogyny, to be shown off with such loving fanfare. 

Fantasia Barrino pulls off a touching depiction of Celie, but the musical format runs too fast ahead of the story to really peg her emotions down for us. The vices of Celie's husband Albert (Colman Domingo) and her father Alfonso (Deon Cole) feel rushed and without the depth provided in the book, verging close to becoming Black male caricatures of violence in several instances.

The breathtaking beauty of The Color Purple is no doubt, Shug and Celie. The chemistry between Fantasia and Taraji P Henson – which would resonate even more for those who’ve read the book– is beautiful and really holds the film. In light of the film’s release, LA Times writer Ashley Lee reminded us of Walker's 2019 statement on Celie and the 40-year-old road it took for the character’s representation as a queer icon on screen/stage. Walker had written at the time that Celie was based on her own grandmother who had been horrifically abused by her grandfather. Like Celie, Walker’s grandmother lived a “frightful life serving and obeying abusive men, who raped in place of ‘making love’.”

Walker also explained in the statement that the one person her grandmother was drawn to, was her grandfather’s extramarital partner [much like Celie and Shug]. To Walker, writing the love between Shug and Celie as she did, was a way of telling her grandmother, “She too, like all of us, deserved to be seen, appreciated, and deeply loved by someone who saw her as whole and worthy. Because I believe, and know, that sexual love can be extraordinarily holy, whoever might be engaging in it, I felt I had been able to return a blessing of love to a grandmother who had always offered only blessing and love, when I was a child, to me.” The realisation, or even enactment of this blessing on screen in Bazawule’s The Color Purple is perhaps the film’s towering accomplishment.

However, something is amiss in the film. It is hard to say if this is because of the format of a musical and how the story was adapted to suit it – the director takes a devastating novel and attempts something playful, which leaves you confused. Some serious sequences may come through as comic, as much as that not being the film’s intention. 

The lives of every woman in The Color Purple are bitterly hard. It is between the implacable rule of men and the rule of race where Celie, her younger sister Nettie, Shug, and Celie’s daughter-in-law Sofia build their unique brand of resistance in the book. At just over 300 pages, their affection and clashes with one another are built up at a perfect tempo. In the film, many of these connections come together in quick-cut moments of Black sisterhood. The scenes are poignant for their rarity on screen and the beauty of the dark-skinned Black women they celebrate. But something is missing.

As a musical, the film carries the feel of a stage production than a film, but never has the intimacy of a theatre piece, except in the exchanges between Celie and Shug. Rather, characters from the book come and go, singing, sassing, crying, and dancing their way through the story until you feel more and more dislocated from the book. Writing this review, I was struggling to articulate why the film left me deeply conflicted. The musical format could be a move to signify resistance to Black trauma—to sing defiantly instead. But for an audience who has never read the book, the sheer weight of the violence from Celie’s husband and father hardly registers amidst the rush to get to the singing. 

Speilberg’s 1985 adaptation was divisive too, to say the least—a white director’s role in telling the story of Black women’s pain in the face of pre-existing stereotypes of Black men left many split on how to view the politics of the story. After the film came out, The New York Times ran a piece titled ‘Blacks in Heated Debate over The Color Purple’. The debate, NYT reported, was more or less split between Black women, who said it accurately depicted their own experiences, and Black men (and some Black women) who said it “distorts history”. Speilberg’s film was traumatising – it translates with numbing detail the abuses Celie faces but dilutes the romance between her and Shug. 

Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg (the 1985 film’s Celie) have now co-produced Bazawule’s iteration. Maybe how to adapt a book as historic, shattering, and iconoclastic as this, will always leave us with a tumult of emotions. But in trying to understand Bazawule’s work, I am looking at a copy of Walker’s The Color Purple and I can only say that the film felt a bit like the Disney version. 

Sure, there were iconic and moving moments, but it felt insubstantial when compared to the weight of the book. 

The film had a special premiere in Chennai on March 7, organised by the US Consulate, and it will hit theatres from March 8. The Color Purple had its UK and US releases late in 2023.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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