Review: Different Shades of The Color Purple

The Color Purple has had many incarnations since its origin. First, as a novel in 1982 (destined to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1983), then a Best Picture Academy Award nominated (and should have won) film in 1985. It went on to become an award-winning Broadway musical in 2005 (produced by, among others, Oprah Winfrey) and on to win further awards for the stage revival ten years later. Now The Color Purple has come full circle by becoming a movie-musical for the 2023 Holiday Season. Once again, Oprah Winfrey is at the helm, and reunited with the co-producers, Stephen Spielberg and Quincy Jones, who produced and wrote the music for the 1985 film, respectively.

The original novel by Alice Walker is told in epistolary form (written in the style of letters/correspondence) from a poor, young teenage girl named Celie, who is trying to understand the devastating life she lives. Celie lives with her father and her younger sister, Nettie in Georgia, in 1909. After consistent abuse and rape by her father, Celie gives birth twice (a boy and a girl), but her father takes the children away to ‘give them to God’. A farmer calling himself “Mister” comes to court Nettie, but is only offered Celie, “an ugly gal that works like a man”. Mister accepts the deal (after a cow is thrown in as a dowry), and brings her home to care for his son Harpo, and his other unruly young children. Celie’s physical abuse continues as she is put to work cleaning, cooking and taking care of the children. Nettie appears a few weeks later, saying she couldn’t stop their father’s advances, and stays with her sister and her husband, until Mister puts the moves on her. When he is rejected, Mister forcefully throws her off his property threatening death if she ever returns. Years continue without a word from Nettie, and despite her vow to write Celie, no letters arrive, and Celie assumes her sister is dead. Harpo grows to be an adult and falls in love with Sophia, an independent, headstrong no-nonsense woman. Following his father’s lead, Harpo tries to beat Sophia into submission, to no avail. While the couple obviously loves each other, Sophia says “Hell No” to the abuse and leaves her husband. When Mister’s girlfriend, Shug Avery, comes to town, Celie falls in love with the wild, free-spirited blues singer, and for the first time in her life, that love is reciprocated. It is only when Shug is visiting (and therefore accepts the mail) that the two women find out that Mister has been depriving Celie of letters from her sister. They find a large stash of every correspondence over the years, and discover that Nettie went to live with a religious couple who couldn’t have children of their own. The couple adopted Celie’s two children (sold by their father) and now they are all in Africa as missionaries. Celie’s strength is found in her love for Shug and Nettie with the knowledge that her children are alive. When Shug eventually announces it’s time for her to leave, Celie goes with her. When Mister raises his hand to stop her, Celie puts a karmic curse on him saying “until you do right by me, everything you think about will fail”. Mister calls her “Poor, Black and ugly”, to which Celie triumphantly answers, “I may be poor, black and ugly, but I am here!” The story continues with Shug and Celie setting up a house in Memphis. They live as a couple and are in love. When Celie discovers Shug having an affair with a boy, she demands that Shug choose between them. Celie (hurt and broken hearted) returns to Georgia to inherit the store her father had when she was growing up. She discovers that the man she thought was her father was in fact her step-father, which frees her conscious (and children) from the sin of incest. Celie becomes a seamstress opening the store anew and succeeding on her own. Mister, whose life has suffered greatly under “Miss Celie’s Curse”, asks her to come back. Celie declines with the offer to be his friend, and he accepts, trying to be a better man. They end up having many talks and visits within their new understanding of one another. When a letter comes from the US Immigration, Mister knows it is the way to try to make amends, and arranges Nettie and Celie’s children to come back home to the United States. Celie is surprised and over-whelmed at the reunion, and finally settles into the love that she never had before.

The Color Purple novel has gone on to win the 1983 Pulitzer Prize (making Alice Walker the first woman of color to ever do so), as well as several other prestigious awards. It is a beautiful story about triumphing over abuse, and finding love no matter what the cost. The book is exquisitely written (with several instances influenced from the lives of Alice Walker’s relatives as well as her own life).  At the same time, it has consistently been on the “banned” list for ‘sexual explicitness, homosexuality, violence, and explicit language’ among other reasons. It also remains on the “Most Challenged” books in the United States. Alice Walker, as an ‘ardent Pro-Palestinian activist’ refused to have her book published in Israel in 2012. The decision met much controversy.

Stephen Spielberg adapted the book for the large screen in 1985. The (now classic) film stared Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and made the cinematic debut for Whoopi Goldberg as Celie. (Tina Turner was offered the role of Shug Avery, and turned it down saying “No thank you, I lived this”). The film is considered a masterpiece by many (and controversial by others for its depiction of the ‘angry black man’) by remaining (mostly) faithful to the novel. The film downplayed the relationship between Celie and Shug by being more implicative that their sexual relationship was little more than a one-night-stand, and subtly alluding that it romantically continued at all! Unfortunately, this was common for Hollywood at the time. (another examples of this was the 1991 film version of “Fried Green Tomatoes”, where the love relationship between two women was downplayed, and definitely glossed over). Despite being nominated for 11 Academy Awards, T Color Purple won none, losing to the film adaptation of “Out of Africa”.

The musical adaptation opened on Broadway in 2008. The book was written by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis. Oprah Winfrey became a producer of the stage production. The show uses music reminiscent of the early 1900’s and the songs added new dimensions to the characters. The stage production remained even more faithful to the book, than it’s film predecessor, by further exploring the relationship between Celie and Shug. The musical did not shy away from allowing an audience to see two women that love each other and were involved in a relationship.

So, what does the new musical film adaptation of The Color Purple bring to the table? Music; some taken from the Broadway production, some cut from the stage production, and some new music as well. That’s about it, and that’s very disappointing. Thirteen songs (out of nineteen) from the stage production were cut for this film. One song cut from the stage production was reinstated, and two songs from the original 1985 film (“Sisters” and a watered-down version of “God Is Trying to Tell You Something”), not in the stage production, were recreated for this new film; probably, to appease fans of the original movie. The incredible triumphant and loving story seems rushed despite the film’s two+ hour running time leaving both questions and gaps for the audience to ponder. While Sophia’s song of resistance “Hell No” (sung by Danielle Brooks, reprising her role from the 2015 stage revival) is left intact, the reconciliation number between Harpo and herself is gone. There is nothing new shown about the relationship between Shug and Celie and that’s a damn shame. The book and the stage production were NOT afraid to explore the lesbian relationship the couple had established. Shug’s heart-felt “Too Beautiful For Words”, a song that she uses to tell Celie how truly beautiful she is, (probably for the first time in Celie’s life) is reduced to a background number on the radio. The song “What About Love” is included in the new film, but instead of being clearly about the love involving another woman, it is sung as a duet while the two are at a movie; a cheap ploy but a pleaser for any Hollywood film buff. When Celie moves to Memphis with Shug, there’s no implication whatsoever that their romantic relationship continues to be anything more than a close friendship between two women. Yes, Shug is now married to a man, but that was never a hinderance to their relationship in either the original book or the stage musical. The husband disappears in the book and stage production, but very clearly sticks around in this one. While the film does have a later scene between Celie and Mister (where Celie hastily rejects Mister’s offer and shoves him out the door saying “We was meant to be friends”), this new film does little more than its celluloid predecessor did with exploring Celie’s later relationships with anyone in her life; not Sophia, not Harpo, not Mister, and definitely not Shug. And that only shows us that for all of the advances made in Hollywood politics, the African-American homosexual community still has a long way to go to be demonstrative on screen.

The new musical isn’t a bad film, nor an awful adaptation, if taken by itself. The acting is done well and the dance numbers are fun to watch. Fantasia Barrino does a good job as Celie, if not perhaps a bit underwhelming. But anyone would be standing in the shoes of Whoopi Goldberg (who makes a brief cameo as a midwife). Taraji P. Henson (Shug Avery) does a very enticing and seductive job as the over-the-top blue-singer, and Danielle Brooks – without a doubt – shines through in full force. Apart from the casting and the songs, this version doesn’t add anything new or really anything that different – for better or worse – than its predecessor.

If a rating system was put into place for the different versions of The Color Purple, (barring the 2008 radio production that I’ve never experienced), I would have to rate it chronologically:

BEST: The original novel by Alice Walker
Second: The original film by Stephen Spielberg and Quincy Jones
Third: The stage musical
Last: The film version of the stage musical.

 

 

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Eric Andrews-Katz

Eric Andrews-Katz

Eric Andrews-Katz has short stories included in over 10 anthologies. He is the author of the Agent Buck 98 Series (“The Jesus Injection” and “Balls & Chain”), and the author of the Greek myth series beginning with the novel TARTARUS. He has conducted celebrity interviews with some of the biggest and best names on Broadway, Hollywood and in literature. He can be found at: http://www.EricAndrewsKatz.com

1 Reply to “Review: Different Shades of The Color Purple”

  1. Lovely! This has been an absolutely fantastic post. I appreciate you sharing these specifics.

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