The Color Purple is ‘a joy to watch’

Henson slips easily into the role of the free-spirited singer Shug Avery, Mister’s occasional lover and for a time Celie’s as well. In a red sequined dress and a red feather in her hair, Shug sings in a juke joint run by Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins). And a nod to old Hollywood adds a bit of glamour when Celie and Shug go to a movie and disappear into a movie of their own, a Fred-and-Ginger style Art Deco fantasy in which they walk down twin staircases and sing a ballad together about love and kindness. In the reality of the movie theatre, they kiss and wake up together the next morning, a discreet way to acknowledge the relationship.

Celie learns to stand up for herself thanks to a strong sisterhood around her. No one in that sisterhood is stronger than Harpo’s no-nonsense wife, Sophia, played with intensity and humour by Danielle Brooks in a performance so spectacular she would run away with the film if she had more scenes. Sophia is a perfectly chiselled supporting character, played by Oprah Winfrey in the first film. (Oprah and Spielberg are producers of this one, lending it a seal of approval.) It is also the juiciest role, as Sophia sings Hell, No! after Harpo dares to hit her, and she is joined by a chorus of defiant women singing along. Brooks makes the absolute most of the part, creating an emotional reality beneath the fierceness here and later when a racist couple causes Sophia’s life to fall apart.

“Everything and everybody wants to be loved,” Shug tells Celie, whose lack of love drives the narrative. That need seems true for the film as well. Straight through to the big finish with a spiritual song and a warm family reunion, The Color Purple is shameless in its wish to be loved by audiences. That may be calculated, but the strategy works in this vivid, alternate take on a classic story.

★★★★☆

The Color Purple is released on 25 December in the US, and on 26 January 2024 in the UK.

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