Movie Review: ‘The Color Purple’ is a stirring big-screen musical powered by its spectacular cast

Movie Review: ‘The Color Purple’ is a stirring big-screen musical powered by its spectacular cast

Exuberant performances from a cast led by Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks breathe life into Blitz Bazawule’s stirring “The Color Purple,” adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway production.

Alice Walker ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, which Steven Spielberg turned into the 1985 film, may be an unlikely book for such bright adaptations. Walker’s novel, told through Celie’s letters penned to God, is harrowingly bleak in its tale of trauma, poverty, abuse and rape. Much of Walker’s “The Color Purple” doesn’t scream song and dance.

But the emotional triumphs of Walker’s novel and its soul-stirring tribute to the power of Black women lend themselves to the kind of maximalist spectacle of Bazawule’s razzle-dazzle adaptation. The tragedy found in “The Color Purple” makes its final release all the more rousing.

Barrino, who in 2007 took over the role on Broadway, plays Celie with a raw soulfulness. In the film’s opening scenes, she’s picked by Mister ( Colman Domingo ) to be his wife, though her role at his messy, ramshackle home is much closer to servant.

Life with Mister, who regularly beats her, is a nightmare. That Domingo is able play such a loathsome, cruel character and yet still find subtle notes of woundedness and ultimately redemption in Mister is a testament to his dynamism as an actor. The roots of Mister’s barbarism are traced to his own brutal father (Louis Gossett Jr.), one of the numerous ways in which “The Color Purple” contemplates cycles of abuse and inherited pain.

Celie, separated from her beloved sister Nettie (Halle Bailey), has little to look forward to. But after years go by, signs of possibility begin entering the orbit of her savage rural corner of early 20th century Georgia.

First there’s Sofia ( Brooks ), the wife of Mister’s more sensitive son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), who builds a juke joint on a pier above a swamp. Brooks, reprising the role she played in the 2015 stage revival, is a revelation as the strong-willed, admirably reckless Sofia. Her forceful and funny entry (and her thundering song “Hell No!”) announce a female empowerment Celie hasn’t ever dared to imagine.

But the film takes off when Shug ( Henson ) makes her show-stopping entrance. Shug, a glamorous singer who breezes in and out of their country lives, is whom Mister most pines for — and whom Celie has great affection for, as well.

Henson, outfitted sumptuously by costumer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, gives “The Color Purple” a vivid, movie-star splash. Celie and Shug’s romance has often been downplayed — it was almost totally absent Spielberg’s film. This version, while still falling short, does a little better thanks to their tender duet “What About Love?”

In this lengthy and star-packed musical (Ciara, Jon Batiste, H.E.R. and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor are just some of the cameos), there are more dramatic ups and downs to go. But the movie builds irresistibly toward the hard-earned emancipation of Celie, and Barrino’s climactic, impassioned performance of “I’m Here.”

Bazawule, the Ghana-born filmmaker, has made one previous feature (“The Burial of Kojo”). But he also performs as the hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador and directed Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” visual album. And his adroitness in capturing musical performance is easy to see in “The Color Purple,” produced by a trio of heavyweights from the first film: Oprah Winfrey, Spielberg and Quincy Jones.

But it’s the movie’s own power trio of Barrino, Brooks and Henson that makes “The Color Purple” one of the most moving big-screen musicals in recent years. Each in their own way transforms suffering into exhilarating portraits of survival and strength.

“The Color Purple,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language. Running time: 140 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.