The Great Experiment That Is ‘The Color Purple’

And yet the film was groundbreaking, changing our understanding of what was possible for Black actors and stories in Hollywood. Ultimately, it paved the way for these new works by Beyoncé, DuVernay and Bazawule. And unlike its predecessor, Bazawule’s musical version, opening in theaters on Christmas Day, premieres alongside other films with predominantly Black casts, and so his “Color Purple” is free to reimagine and experiment with form and conventional musical conceit.

Through Celie’s vivid inner life, the dynamic songs and choreography, and playful cinematic references, this version honors its literary, Broadway and Hollywood forerunners while successfully updating how we see Alice Walker’s characters and, even more surprisingly, innovating how we can experience the movie musical genre itself.

Arriving in a different feminist moment, Bazawule is not bedeviled by the sexist and homophobic concerns that plagued the first movie. And yet, his most memorable scenes subtly take on those past critiques while adding new cinematic layers to Celie’s story. Early in the film, Celie’s active imagination — depicted in the novel through her letter-writing — is shown as both a coping mechanism and a surrealistic narrative detour. When the teenage Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) discovers that her children are alive after Pa convinced her that they had died, she dreams of avoiding the drudgery of her life.

In the number “She Be Mine,” Celie imagines that she has left Pa’s store and walks through a Southern landscape that is paradoxically lush and marred by the exploitation of Black laborers. As she passes a group of Black men working on a chain gang and Black laundry women washing clothes by a waterfall, we recognize that her escape is limited and illusory and that she is as oppressed in her home as they are in their work.

But when adult Celie (Fantasia Barrino-Taylor) tends to the bodacious blues singer Shug (Taraji P. Henson), her interiority takes over even more. As Shug falls asleep in the bathtub while listening to a record, Celie suddenly imagines a gramophone that’s larger than life, and standing on a spinning vinyl album that doubles as a concert stage, she belts an empowering song.

Later, Bazawule expands his surreal aesthetic when Celie and Shug go to the movies. Sitting in the segregated balcony section as they watch “The Flying Ace,” Richard E. Norman’s 1926 silent with an all-Black cast, Celie imagines them in a different movie — one in color in which they are dressed in ball gowns and singing to each other in front of a Duke Ellington-like jazz band. When we return to the present, they kiss, cementing their relationship and finally enabling Celie’s fantasy to come true. In 1985, that kiss was brief and the cause of much public debate. With access to her inner thoughts in 2023, Celie’s hopes and desires become our own: We recognize that her intimacy with Shug is long-awaited and fulfilling.

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