Review: ‘The Color Purple’ (2023), starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi

December 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks in “The Color Purple” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Color Purple” (2023)

Directed by Blitz Bazawule

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia and in Tennessee, from 1909 to 1947, the musical “The Color Purple” (which is inspired by Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name) features a predominantly African American group of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An oppressed woman named Celie endures horrific abuse and a forced separation from her beloved sister, but she meets certain people who change her outlook on life.

Culture Audience: In addition to appealing to the obvious target audience of fans of “The Color Purple” book and its various adaptations, the movie musical version of “The Color Purple” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and filmmakers, as well as to people who don’t mind watching musicals that shows extremes in human emotions.

Colman Domingo in “The Color Purple” (Photo by Ser Baffo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie musical “The Color Purple” creatively blends emotional highs and lows in this glitzier version of the book and the 1985 dramatic movie. More comedy and joy balance out the trauma and abuse, but the overall theme of resilience remains the same. Some fans of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” novel and some fans of director Steven Spielberg’s 1985 “The Color Purple” movie might not warm to this movie musical if they’re offended by the thought of putting song-and-dance numbers in the most upsetting parts of the story, or if they don’t like how the musical alters key parts of the original story in the novel, including the ending. However, fans of the “The Color Purple” stage musical will be pleased by how the 2023 version of “The Color Purple” is faithful to the stage musical while bringing a vibrant cinematic life of its own.

Directed by Blitz Bazawule and written by Marcus Gardley, the 2023 movie musical version of “The Color Purple” astutely depicts the movie’s most fantastical and elaborate production designs as being manifestations of the imagination of protagonist Celie (played by Fantasia Barrino) during moments in her life when she’s dreaming of escaping from her grim circumstances. It’s a manifestation that is ideal for the visual medium of cinema, which has the benefit of film editing that a stage production does not.

The Tony-winning “The Color Purple” stage musical had its first Broadway run from 2005 to 2008; has gone through various touring incarnations; and experienced a successful Broadway revival from 2015 to 2017. Barrino played the role of Celie on Broadway from 2006 to 2007. Marsha Norman wrote the book for the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The songs range from expressing the depths of despair of a mother who has a child taken a way from her (“Somebody Gonna Love You”); the defiant declaration of not putting up with abuse (“Hell No”); the sultry seduction of adults freely expressing their sexuality (“Push Da Button”); and the triumph of independence and self-acceptance (“I’m Here”).

What “The Color Purple” stage musical and movies have in common are the involvement of Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones. Jones was a producer and composer for the 1985 “The Color Purple” movie, and he continued in the role of producer for the stage musical and the 2023 “The Color Purple” movie. Winfrey made her Oscar-nominated movie debut as an actress in 1985’s “The Color Purple,” and she’s a producer of the stage musical and the 2023 “The Color Purple” movie. Spielberg is a producer of “The Color Purple” movies, while Scott Sanders is a producer of “The Color Purple” stage musical and the 2023 version of “The Color Purple.”

“The Color Purple” movie musical (which takes place in Georgia and Tennessee) begins in 1909 in an unnamed rural area of Georgia, where 14-year-old Celie Harris (played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) has given birth to her second child: a son. Celie’s father Alfonso (played by Deon Cole) snatches the child away and cruelly tells Celie that she will never see this child again. He did the same thing when Celie gave birth to her first child, who was a daughter. Both pregnancies resulted from Alfonso raping Celie. It’s implied that Alfonso sold both children to be illegally adopted.

The only happiness that Celie experiences in her life is from her close relationship with her younger sister Nettie (played by Halle Bailey), who is very protective of the more insecure Celie. Nettie is the person who teaches Celie to read. They spend hours reading together, often in a tree, where they can’t be seen by their horrible father.

Alfonso isn’t done selling members of his family. A widower farmer named Albert “Mister” Johnson (played by Colman Domingo) is an abusive bully who is looking for a new wife. He insists that most people call him Mister. Mister is attracted to Nettie, but Alphonso will only allow Mister to marry Celie, who is sold into this marriage by her father when Celie is 18 years old. Barrino portrays Celie as an adult. The rest of the movie shows what happens to Celie through a period of time spanning to 1947.

In the first year of Mister and Celie’s miserable marriage, he lets Nettie live in the same household. But when Nettie rejects Mister’s sexual advances, he evicts her from the house and tells her that she can never come back. This forced separation scene isn’t as heart-wrenching as how it was in the 1985 “The Color Purple” movie, but it’s still one of the more emotionally difficult scenes to watch. Nettie promises to write to Celie every day, but Mister intercepts the letters because he tells fearful Celie (who has been beaten into submission by Mister) that he is the only person in the household who is allowed to handle the mail.

During the worst parts of Celie’s life, she meets certain people who have different effects on how she sees herself and others. Shug Avery (played by Taraji P. Henson) is a Memphis-based jazz and blues singer, who is open about her fluid sexuality. Shug is considered the “morally wayward” daughter of Reverend Avery (played by David Alan Grier), the leader of the local church attended by African American people in Celie’s area.

Mister has been in love with Shug for years. He acts like a giddy schoolboy, every time she visits the area. However, she treats him more like a sexual plaything, and she refuses Mister’s wish to make him her only lover. Mister and Shug openly carry on an affair when she’s visiting. What Shug doesn’t expect is to befriend Celie, who sees life from an entirely new perspective when she gets to know confident and sassy Shug. The connection between Celie and Shug goes beyond friendship into sexual intimacy.

Harpo Jackson (played by Corey Hawkins) is Mister’s sensitive adult son, who falls in love, marries, and starts a family with a feisty and outspoken woman named Sofia (played by Danielle Brooks), who doesn’t hesitate to get involved in physical brawls if anyone tries to pick a fight with her. The marriage of easygoing Harpo and domineering Sofia goes through ups and downs. At one point, they break up, and Harpo moves on to having a live-in girlfriend named Squeak (played by H.E.R.), who gets caught in the middle of the volatile relationship between Sofia and Harpo.

With a cast this talented and with breathtaking musical numbers (including dazzling choreography from Fatima Robinson), it’s hard to go wrong in this musical version of “The Color Purple.” This version of the story puts more emphasis on the “sisterhood” of Celie, Shug and Sofia, compared to the original story that makes Celie much more of a loner character much longer in the story. All three women have their own trials and tribulations in a society that expects them to allow their lives to be dictated and controlled by men.

Barrino, Henson and Brooks are standouts in their own right in this movie. Barrino’s Celie is often downtrodden but never completely pathetic, as she maintain her dignity during all much emotional and physical abuse that is inflicted on her. Barrino depicts Celie with slightly more intelligence than Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Celie in 1985’s “The Color Purple.” (A plot development in the last third of the movie shows Celie getting a life.

Henson puts a more comedic and lively spin on Shug, who has more comeback quips than Margaret Avery’s more understated, Oscar-nominated version of Shug in 1985’s “The Color Purple.” Henson’s Shug (especially during the musical numbers) is bold, brash and not at all interested in being subtle. In this movie, Shug’s signature song “Push Da Button” is every bit the decadent extravaganza that is should be.

Brooks, who had the Tony-nominated role of Sofia in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” is a scene stealer not just with her acting but also with her powerhouse singing. She’s arguably the strongest vocalist in this entire cast. Beyond the vocal theatrics, Brooks brings a swagger to the role of Sofia, whereas Winfrey’s version of Sofia had more stomping. Sofia is lovably flawed with a fiery temper that gets easily triggered, because she’s lived her life constantly being on the defensive from personal attacks.

The original “The Color Purple” novel and movie got some criticism for its portrayal of African American men as being either abusive or wishy-washy. In this version of “The Color Purple,” Mister is not depicted as an irredeemable villain. There are glimpses of his vulnerability, such as his fear of his cantankerous and misogynistic father Ol’ Mister (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), who scolds Mister for not being controlling enough of Celie.

Some viewers might have a problem with a certain turning point in Mister’s story arc that’s very different from the novel, but the intention seems to be to make Mister more human and less of a one-dimensional villain. Domingo as Mister handles this balancing act with considerable skill. The father/son relationship between Mister and Harpo is explored in more depth in addressing issues of how toxic masculinity can be passed down in a family for generations, unless someone in the family is willing to stop the cycle.

Even in settings where many of the characters live in poverty, “The Color Purple” is rich in its depiction of African American culture at this particular time in this region of the United States. The scenes that take place in Celie’s imagination are entirely consistent with how Celie dreams about how her life could be more glamorous and happier than it really is. An inspired set design shows Celie giving Shug a bath, while the bathtub revolves on a giant gramophone turntable.

“The Color Purple” can certainly spark debate about whether or not the world needs another version of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And there are definitely worthy discussions to be had about why so many “awards bait” movies centered on African Americans have a lot of violence, poverty and/or trauma. But for what it is in depicting a specific group of African Americans during a time in American history before the U.S. civil rights movement, this version of “The Color Purple” is a worthy adaptation that gives each of the principal characters clear and distinctive personalities and varied ways to better understand who they are.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Color Purple” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023. UPDATE: The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Sidney”

Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

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