Starring: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Halle Bailey
Director: Blitz Bazawule
UK Release: Warner Bros
Alice Walker’s beloved book has been through many adaptations, both for the stage and screen. Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation was an awards smash hit but also had its critics, while its Broadway musical incarnation has been a feel-good crowd-pleaser that feels a long way from its source material. It’s the latter from which this newest version has been spawned, but has it fallen into the same pitfalls as its predecessors? Absolutely. Is that a problem? Well that depends...
Fantasia Barrino makes her big screen debut as Celie, the role that launched Whoopi Goldberg’s career. This is likely to do the same for the American Idol star, giving tangible nuance to the beleaguered young woman who suffers at the hands of both her father and husband, (Domingo – Rustin, Selma). The former raped her as a child, giving her two children that he then took away from her. The latter, known only as “Mr”, regularly beats her, furious that he married Celie and not her sister, Nettie (Bailey – The Little Mermaid).
When Mr forbids his wife from ever seeing her sister again, she falls into a life a of subservience as she brings up his son (Hawkins – Straight OuttaCompton, BlacKkKlansman) and tolerates his love affair with Blues singer, Shug (Henson – Hidden Figures, Empire). But despite this unusual set-up, she forms a deep connection with the performer, realising that her feelings go much further than just friendship. And as she slowly gains confidence in herself, she and the women of their extended family learn how to empower themselves within the tough status quo of segregated Georgia in the early twentieth century.
One of the major criticisms of Spielberg’s film was that he shied away from properly tackling the more adult themes of Walker’s novel. However, this movie does indeed depict Celie’s lesbian relationship with Shug, which Spielberg’s decidedly did not. But the abuse in the first act? To fit with a high-gloss all-singing and all-dancing musical, it’s somewhat downplayed and sanitised to match with the film’s intended wide appeal. But to really understand Celie you really need to see what she has been subjected to. And the film doesn’t manage that whatsoever. So from Mr being the overbearing monster of the novel, he has become just another angry man without much menace whatsoever.
If you watch this new film in a vacuum, there’s no doubt you will still love it. With vivid characters, compelling stories and infectious songs, you’ll fall in love with Celie and her friends. A tubthumping call to arms for women’s empowerment, it’s also a vivid portrait of African-Americans at the height of segregated America. Barrino is magnificent, while Taraji P. Henson is gloriously sensual as the seductive Shug Avery. But the plaudits have to go to the scene stealing Danielle Brooks (Orange Is The New Black), whose Oscar-nominated performance as Celie’s daughter-in-law Sofia is effervescent and filled with the kind of unbridled sass that Olivia Spencer would be proud of. She also gets the best song - “Hell No!” is by far the most infectious in the film - although there are several that you’ll be adding to your playlists after the credits roll.
This is a well-crafted musical film that looks and sounds resplendent. Does it paint a high-gloss veneer over a deeply troubled time? Yes. Does it sideline racial issues in favour of a good story? Yes. But is it entertaining to watch? Hell yes. Spielberg’s was a much more faithful adaptation, whereas this feels more like it should come with an “inspired by” label. The misery, abuse and sheer depravity of Walker’s novel has been sanitised to the point that it’s barely recognisable, but it’s a high budget studio musical, so what do we expect? So if you're not watching it in a vacuum... well you can't help but see its cracks, but if you are? Prepare to have your socks blown off.
UK Release: Out now in UK cinemas, released by Warner Bros