Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Fantasia Barrino as Celie...

 Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Fantasia Barrino as Celie and Danielle Brooks as Sofia in  “The Color Purple.”  Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT In the early 1900s, a Southern Black woman struggles for personal liberation.

CAST  Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo

RATED PG-13 (sexuality and some violence)


WHERE Opens Dec. 25 at area theaters

BOTTOM LINE The pain and triumph in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning book feel diluted in this musical adaptation.

Controversy has dogged Alice Walker’s novel “A Color Purple” since it was first published in 1982. Despite winning the Pulitzer — the first novel by a Black woman to do so — it would go on to be perennially banned for its frank treatment of incest, homosexuality and violence. Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation took its lumps for the opposite reason: Though it turned Whoopi Goldberg into a movie star and suggested that Oprah Winfrey (in her film debut) could have been one if she liked, critics called it gauzy and sentimentalized.

The crowd-pleaser turned out to be the 2015 Broadway musical, which snapped up a Tony Award for best revival. The new film version of that play aims to be a crowd-pleaser as well — and that might be its fatal flaw.

“The Color Purple” does everything a big-studio movie-musical is supposed to. Its star, Fantasia Barrino (making her film debut as well), reprises her Broadway role as Celie, a broken-spirited Black woman living in the American South of the early 1900s. It casts a rising talent, Colman Domingo (“Rustin”), to play the tricky part of Mister, an abuser and sexual predator who nevertheless earns our pity. And it chooses wisely for its biggest, showiest role: Taraji P. Henson plays Shug Avery, a blues singer who lives her life at top volume. (There are also solid turns from Danielle Brooks as the brash Sofia and Corey Hawkins as Harpo, who tries in vain to tame her.)

So what’s the problem? Director Blitz Bazawule, a Ghanaian multimedia artist known for his work on Beyoncé’s visually inventive film “Black Is King,” here sticks to convention. That’s clear in the first big number, “Mysterious Ways,” with its chorus line of churchgoing ladies in flowered hats, and in Celie’s ode to a lost child, “She Be Mine,” accompanied by a pick-swinging chain gang. These conceits may be period accurate, but they feel obvious, a little too dead-on. Conversely, “Keep it Movin’,” a new number written and sung by Halle Bailey (as Celie’s sprightly sister, Nettie) sounds bright, poppy and slightly out of place — more Pharrell Williams than early blues.

The movie is fairly bold in its treatment of the romance between Celie and Shug, something Spielberg probably couldn’t have gotten away with. Here’s where Bazawule finally thinks big, placing the two women on a giant spinning 78 as they dance together like Fred and Ginger for “What About Love.” The movie could have used more such moments.

What stands out is still Walker’s story of a Black woman surviving every obstacle life puts before her. In a justly famous line that has survived from book to film to stage and back to film again, Celie hollers that she may be poor, Black and even ugly — “but I’m here.”

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