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Review: The Color Purple – A Bold New Take on the Beloved Classic

Anna Drury | Lancaster University

When I began writing this review, the prodigious words of literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman came to mind. In her landmark work Lose Your Mother, Hartman traced the history of the Atlantic slave trade by recounting a journey she took along a slave route beginning in Elmina, Ghana. As a descendant of enslaved people, Hartman journeyed to Ghana in an attempt to understand her ancestors: those severed from their kin, forced to forget their past, and to inhabit the world as outsiders. Reflecting on how she lives in the future created by slavery, Hartman described its legacies in contemporary society as  ‘the stories we tell about what happened then, the correspondences we discern between today and times past, and the ethical and political stakes of these stories rebound in the present’. In the latest film adaptation of Alice Walker’s critically acclaimed 1982 novel The Color Purple, I would argue that we see glimpses of stories of the past rebound in the lives of protagonists Celie and Nettie.

A paperback of The Color Purple. The cover design is two stylised black women.
My own copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Anna Drury).

Directed by Blitz Bazawule, the latest film adaptation of The Color Purple features solo musical performances and ensemble dance routines, inspired by the 2005 Broadway musical, which in turn is based on the novel’s first 1985 screen adaptation directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg. Bazawule is perhaps best known for co-directing Beyoncé’s Black Is King, a film which celebrates black identity and female empowerment, as well as showcasing musical talent from across Africa. Such is resonant in his version of The Color Purple, with strong female protagonists and African musical influences. The Color Purple spans the early decades of the twentieth century and tells the story of sisters Celie and Nettie’s collective pain and struggle in growing up as African American women in rural Georgia.


When we first meet fourteen-year-old Celie (portrayed by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi), the potent themes of Walker’s story, of incestuous rape, spousal abuse, racism, inequality, and poverty, are wholly evident. Celie is visibly pregnant for the second time with a child who looks “just like [her] and [her] daddy”. Having suffered repeat sexual violations perpetrated by her own father (played by Deon Cole), Celie’s children are forcibly taken away from her. As she laments for her children in the song She Be Mine, Celie reveals her remarkable capacity to adapt, survive – and most notably, love her children – despite her personal trauma. This scene is poignantly resonant of how multiple generations continue to be shaped by forms of violence that were inherent in systems of slavery.

A photograph of two elderly black women.
Convention of Former Slaves, Washington D.C. (1916) [left to right: Elizabeth Berkeley and Sadie Thompson], Library of Congress.

Celie has an unbreakable bond with Nettie (played by Halle Bailey as a child), who does all she can to care for Celie at her most vulnerable. Nettie comforts Celie as she tells her how “our teacher taught us about a place called Africa… She say our mamas come from queens over there… That means that we… royalty”. The girls imagine their headscarves are crowns as they waltz around their living room, a joyful moment that is quickly contrasted with Celie being given away in marriage to “Mister” Johnson (played by Colman Domingo), who violently abuses Celie and is serially unfaithful to her. When Nettie rejects Mister’s sexual advances, he forbids Celie from having any contact with her beloved sister.

Two black girls smiling.
Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as Young Celie, and Halle Bailey as Young Nettie. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The film touches on the theme of journeying to “a place called Africa” in an attempt to understand ancestral ties, only to be caught up in the violent collapse of British colonial power. Whilst the costuming and musical elements in this segment were outstanding, the reference to British colonial rule in Africa was somewhat homogenising. Within the novel, Walker describes the effects of British colonial rule on the Olinka tribe, which was based along the West coast of Africa. A deeper exploration here in keeping with Walker’s story would have generated a more eloquent post-colonial narrative.


In Nettie’s absence, Celie (now portrayed by Fantasia Barrino) befriends singer Shug Avery (played by Taraji P. Henson, who you may recognise from the 2016 historical drama Hidden Figures, in which she portrayed mathematician Katherine Johnson). Shug is Mister’s mistress, and despite Mister’s blatant infatuation with her, Shug and Celie forge an intimate friendship. It is through this sisterhood that Celie unearths her inner strength to stand up to Mister and his years of physical and psychological abuse. Indeed, Celie is surrounded by women who say “Hell no!” to those men who still treat women “like a slave”. Sofia (portrayed by Danielle Brooks, also known as Taystee from the Netflix original Orange Is the New Black) is one such formidable force. Married to Mister’s son, Sofia implores Celie to “fight back”, but after she endures cruelty, violence, and injustice at the hands of white racists, it is Celie who instead emboldens her. I agree with fellow reviewers that this plot point, in which Sofia is imprisoned for six years for punching a white man, does have a little less meaning and significance in this adaptation. 


One may ask, and rightfully so, if a story of incestuous rape, spousal abuse, and racism can in fact be reinvented as a musical. Indeed, there are those who have argued it is a disingenuous pursuit, and I appreciate this point of view. What I couldn’t shake off, as I watched the big ensemble musical performances, was the feeling that I had never really seen stories - so resonant of the legacies of slaveholding power and violence - being told in this way before, from an exclusively black viewpoint. Just as Bazawule was deeply touched the first time he listened to hip-hop, I was struck by Celie defiantly singing out she’s gonna hold her head up, and look you straight in the eye, because she’s here. Circling back to Hartman, the stakes could not be higher for the stories we tell about the past in the present. This musical adaptation of The Color Purple, a story of sisterhood, hope, resilience, bravery, and ultimately, love, in slavery’s aftermath is indicative of the stories we may tell about the legacies of slavery in the future.

A middle-aged black woman with a pearl necklace.
Fantasia Barrino as Celie. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Further Reading:

  • Alice Walker, The Color Purple (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017).

  • Andrea Livesey, ‘Conceived in Violence: Enslaved Mothers and Children Born of Rape in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana’, Slavery & Abolition, 38, ii (2017), 373-391.

  • Poetry Foundation | Alice Walker <>.

  • Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2021).

  • The Color Purple (dir. by Steven Spielberg, 1985).

  • The Color Purple (dir. by Blitz Bazawule, 2024), in cinemas now.

Anna Drury is a postgraduate researcher at Lancaster University, researching the afterlives of sexual slavery in Brazil through the lens of Brazilian putafeminismo: a feminism created by sex workers based upon the ideals of choice, agency, and control in sex work.


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