‘The Color Purple’ movie review: Three terrific female leads deliver poignant movie magic

With a powerhouse cast and enchanting soundtrack, Blitz Bazawule’s film tells you of all the pleasures and horrors of being a woman, entices you with its captivating storytelling, but then pushes you back into reality with a dagger through the heart

Updated - March 08, 2024 06:39 pm IST

Published - March 08, 2024 05:18 pm IST

Taraji P. Henson, from left, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks in a scene from ‘The Color Purple’

Taraji P. Henson, from left, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks in a scene from ‘The Color Purple’ | Photo Credit: AP

Critiquing cinema demands you experience it without any preconceived baggage; that you enter the hall as nothing more than a sponge that takes in everything before you make up your thoughts. That said, it is difficult to go in with a blank slate before watching The Color Purple this International Women’s Day.

Even if you haven’t read the books or watched the 1985 Steven Spielberg film, the promos are enough to tell you that it deals with sexual and domestic abuse endured by Black women in the early 1900s. So how does an unassuming viewer watch the film as a fictional piece when several gangrapes against women and girl children are currently in the headlines? When social media reeks of incels inadvertently proving the point with their heartless ‘not all men’ narrative? When the realisation dawns that even 100 years after the story is set, women and other gendered minorities are still not seen as the victims, especially with the many oppressive intersections of race, class, caste and religion still largely at play?

However, to see a hall mostly filled with women erupting in laughter while cheering and hooting at headstrong, fierce Sofia (Danielle Brooks) fighting the patriarchy and refusing to be a slave in a man’s world was enough of an indication that we were experiencing a work of art. Even though it doesn’t send you back into a changed reality, the film does pull you into a world more real than one could imagine and offers some respite by taking us on a musical journey that is in equal parts gut-wrenching and spellbinding.

The soundtracks and the use of them in the narrative are what take you by surprise first. One needs to think hard if there ever has been a musical that so seamlessly traverses such extreme emotional landscapes — from celebrating life and making you want to dance to throwing a punch — but also keeping you glued to the seats with overwhelming angst.

Through a song is also how we meet Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey), and it is during a song we learn that Celie is being raped by their abusive father Alfonso (Deon Cole) and that her two babies have been unfairly snatched away from her and “given to God.” Soon enough, Celie is forcibly married off to Mister (a wonderful Colman Domingo), a farmer and father of three. And when Alfonso turns to Nettie, she too begins to live under Mister’s roof. However, hell breaks out when Mister forces himself on Nettie, and the latter is forced to flee away.

The Color Purple (English)
Director: Blitz Bazawule
Cast: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi
Runtime: 141 minutes
Storyline: Celie, a young Black woman stuck in an abusive marriage in the early 1900s rides the hardships of life and finds emancipation through fellow Black women who she meets by chance

For over the next 16 years, Celie (Fantasia Barrino) lives a purposeless life, spending years tolerating Mister’s abuses and doing little than serving his commands. We are also told how Mister, being the only one allowed to touch the mailbox, has been hiding Nettie’s (Ciara) letters from Celie. But Celie’s emancipation comes first in the form of Sofia, who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), and later through Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a Blues singer and Mister’s romantic interest, who for years has piqued Celie’s curiosity as a photo on Mister’s nightstand.

What an empowering spectacle it is to see these three women band together to take control of their own and influence each other’s lives. Through Sofia, the film questions gender roles and several other patriarchal dogmas, and her slapbacks should surely make you cheer and punch the air. She enters like a storm and exits like a badass. And when an unthinkable fate befalls Sofia, you are also told how patriarchy and racism could break down even the strongest of individuals. The most heartfelt of turns from this development comes as we watch Sofia fall, and when Celie begins to fully understand that rot in her world has to be fought against, that she of all people could do with a “Hell, no” attitude.

Shug looks after Celie, expecting only her ever-radiant love in return, and shows her how she gained control of her own life through defiance, self-esteem, talent, and a little music. It surely must be quite something for Black queers to see a sensual something bloom between Shug and Celie, but the plot’s demands ensure that it is kept subtle, their relationship quickly morphing into an empowering sisterhood than anything more.

Except for Mary “Squeak” Agnes (H.E.R), Harpo’s wife who gets sidelined conveniently, the leading women are written with nuanced strokes. Mister finds himself only a bleak and rushed arc, and it’s quite a gamble for the film to let us make our assumptions about Mister’s father, Ol’ Mister Johnson (Louis Gossett Jr.), and what their relationship may have been like. But when you have such a powerhouse ensemble and evocative music, the little smudges quickly vanish.

Bazawule’s adaptation of the eponymous musical — which in turn is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel — talks of all the beauty and horrors of being a woman in this world, entices you with its captivating storytelling, but then pushes you back into reality with a dagger through the heart. And that experience is enough to remember that there are Celies, Sofias, Netties and Shugs all around us, and so are the Misters and Alfonsos. To all of them, may the world celebrate the woman in you, this Women’s Day and all the days to come.

The Color Purple is currently running in theatres

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