Friday, December 22, 2023

‘Color Purple’ musical reaches the screen


  Credit Ghanaian director Blitz Bazawule with blending  earthy naturalistic images, musical numbers, energetic performances, and superior production values in the big-screen musical version of The Color Purple
 At its best, Bazawule's musical seems to burst from the Georgia soil on which the story takes place.
   The source material, Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, doesn’t seem an ideal springboard for a musical; the need to entertain, almost an inherent requirement for musicals, might conflict with a story that contains so many harsh and disturbing elements.
  Bazawule and his team lean toward entertainment, while trying to ensure that The Color Purple doesn't lose all of its impact as a story steeped in cruelty and adversity, as well as hope. 
  Fantasia Barrino, who starred in the Broadway version from 2007-2008, takes on the principal role of Celie, a young woman whose infant child is taken from her early in the movie. 
  Soon the man Celie knows as her father -- and who fathered her child -- gives her to the brutal and boorish Mister (Colman Domingo). He mistreats her at every turn.
   The story derives much of its drive from Celie's need to assert herself and claim a place in the world. 
    Barrino and Domingo anchor the movie while a strong supporting cast adds to the mix, notably Danielle Brooks as the no-nonsense Sofia, a woman to be reckoned with. Brooks' seizes the screen as if it belongs to her -- and it does whenever she's on camera.
  Corey Hawkins's HarpoMister's son, eventually establishes the juke joint that provides the stage for one of the movie's more rousing numbers. 
    That brings us to Taraji P. Henson, who gives a showcase performance as the seductive Shug, a woman who shed the restrictive shackles imposed by her pastor father.  Shug is the only woman Mister treats with respect, probably because he knows he'll never control her.
     Shug also opens a window through which Celie glimpses another possible future for herself. The story begins in the early 1900s and continues through the 40s. culminating with Celie’s assertion of her womanhood.
      Jon Batiste makes a late-picture appearance as Grady, the man who ultimately wins Shug's heart, and Ciara portrays Nettie, Celie's sister and best friend. Early on, Netty flees the small Georgia town where the story unfolds after Mister tries to abuse her sexually.
     The musical numbers -- from one staged in front of a waterfall to another on a glamorous deco stage -- seem to emerge organically, often with an infectious beat, and Bazawule knows how to spotlight the entrance of each important character.
      A screenplay credited to Marcus Gardley, Alice Walker, and Marsha Norman relies on melodramatic twists that might be glaring in a dramatic rendering but become acceptable in a musical environment, although late-picture plot points pile up without much grace.
     Dan Laustsen’s richly realized cinematography and Jon Poll's sharp editing deserve attention and a cameo by Whoopi Goldberg, who played Celie in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie, provides connective tissue to the story’s lineage.
      After a novel, a movie, and numerous stage productions, Celie’s story still provides enough of an emotional framework for a retelling, this time with a palpable sense of the life that derives from vividly drawn characters and the deeply committed actors who play them.

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