Some of that is by design, of course. “The Color Purple” may have had its story slightly softened and sentimentalized (both by Spielberg and the Broadway version), but so much of the journey that Celie embarks on, physically and emotionally, is intentionally taxing, difficult, and painful. And as staged here by Bazawule and choreographer Fatima Robinson, some of the musical numbers in the film are designed in a way to imply a fantastical escape from the pains of the real world. But highlighting the inconsistencies (when they do arise, as a few of the songs are very much intended to exist in that same painful real world) only emphasizes the strange and sometimes off-putting sense of the old-fashioned song-and-dance seeming to cut away from the darkness of Celie’s story. Similarly, where some of the actors are able to straddle both sides of how “The Color Purple” has been mounted, others are only effective at the musical side of things making the other sections a bit more challenging to traverse.
Barrino and Brooks both appeared as Celie and Sofia in iterations of the Broadway musical (and are plenty well-known for their other work, from Barrino’s star having risen after appearing on “American Idol” and Brooks having appeared as Taystee on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black”), but Brooks is far more effective at navigating the fall and rise of Sofia than Barrino is able to balance the dramatic weight of Celie outside of the musical sequences. Henson, Domingo, and Corey Hawkins (the latter playing Mister’s son and Sofia’s husband) all do as well as possible, but are somewhat hobbled by a script by Marcus Gardley that further trims back the emotional complexity of Walker’s work. Though some of the performances are stronger, none of the actors serve as the crutch of “The Color Purple,” but the pomp and circumstance of its existence don’t quite match with the disturbingly lifeless story unfolding on screen.
Even if marketers seem wary of the genre, it’s often a good thing to see a new movie musical, even ones that are as inspired by Broadway as by previous films. But “The Color Purple” is unable to ascend beyond its good intentions into creating a genuinely compelling, entertaining, adult musical. The challenge in adapting this work would be hard for any filmmaker, in balancing singing and dancing with a clear-eyed depiction of the hardships experienced by Black women not just by a racist and sexist society, but by Black men who wished to treat them as property as opposed to people. Blitz Bazawule and a cast of talented performers do their best, but the end result just doesn’t gel.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10