In Oscar nominations week, The Color Purple’s troubled relationship with those little gold men is back in the spotlight. Steven Spielberg’s 1985 original was nominated for no less than 11 awards, but won nothing. After opening to glowing reviews in America last month, the new musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel has seen its awards momentum dissolve to near-nothing, leaving it with just a solitary nod. Whether Danielle Brooks will leave the ceremony in March as Best Supporting Actress is open to question. Time – and the Oscar voters – will tell.
The essential story in both films remains the same, one of triumph over severe and heartbreaking adversity. At the start of the 20th century, black teenager Celie (Fantasia Barrino) has endured the death of her mother and given birth to two babies of her own after being raped by her father. Ignoring her wishes, he finds new homes for them and then marries her off to Mister (Colman Domingo), who is equally abusive, treating her and his children from his first marriage like personal slaves. But, over several decades and with the support of friends, including the other woman in Mister’s life, singer Shug Avery (Taraji P Henson), Celie finds courage, strength and a new kind of sisterhood. And being re-united with her children starts to become a real possibility.
For the second time in as many weeks, we’re witnessing a musical version of a well-loved film. Last week it was Mean Girls, almost a word-for-word reproduction of the 2004 comedy but with added songs. With Blitz Bazawule in the director’s chair this time, The Color Purple does more, while maintaining a strong connection with its original: the producers’ roll call includes Spielberg himself, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, with Whoopi Goldberg slipping in a cameo. Some of the first film’s most memorable moments remain intact, while others – notably when the arrival of the storm is signalled by a spectacular murmuration smothering the sky – have been changed, either visually or verbally. Most remarkable, though, is that the overall tone of the film has softened. Spielberg’s original take was surprisingly gritty and challenging for the mid-80s, but now we are presented with something in softer focus, especially when it comes to the fate of the powerful Sophia (Danielle Brooks), and the storyline is poorer for it, despite Brooks’ performance.
While she’s grabbed the lion’s share of praise, another member of the cast has taken a different approach to their character. Domingo is a cunning, sleazy Mister who comes very close to making your skin crawl: the brutality is still there, but this is a Mister seen through different eyes. But it’s the women that drive the film, especially the trio of Celie, Sophia and Shug, providing all the power, energy and heart – and a sugar rush or two. The ending feels over-tidy, but the film as a whole is strong enough to stand up on its own, even if its chances of a better night at the Oscars this time round are looking slim.
In UK cinemas January 26th / Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P Henson, Colman Domingo, Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins and Halle Bailey / Dir: Blitz Bazawule / Warner Brothers / 12A