Based on the 2005 stage musical inspired by Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, the film musical “The Color Purple” requires a delicate balancing act: how else to tell a personal tale of rape and racism with show tunes? If anyone could pull it off, it’s Ghanaian-born director Blitz Bazawule, whose work has included the Afrofuturist “The Burial of Kojo” and Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King.” Despite a talented cast and some moments that are stirring enough to make you occasionally forget the 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg (co-producer of this one with Oprah Winfrey, who played the breakout role of Sofia in the previous film), the results are uneven.
The story opens somewhere near the Georgia coast in 1909 with teenage Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) sitting in a tree playing patty-cake with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey). This idyllic scene doesn’t last long, as Celie is pregnant — for the second time — by her father, Alfonso (Deon Cole).
After delivering the baby and being separated from her two children, Celie is married off to a traveler who calls himself Mister (Colman Domingo). Alfonso wants to keep Nettie for himself, but he’s more than willing to hand over Celie. Eventually, the story jumps forward in time to a now-grown Celie (“American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino, who originated the role on Broadway). Nettie (played as an adult by singer Ciara) has been banished from visiting her sister by Mister, who physically abuses Celie.
It’s a brutal story, yet perhaps less harrowing than Spielberg’s version (or Walker’s). But it’s undercut even more by an opening number that promises — courtesy of a gospel choir/Greek chorus — that the Lord works in “mysterious ways.” And so does the movie. But where the 1985 film worked its way up to a thrilling climax, Bazawule, following the template of the Broadway version, starts with a big production number, which works against the violence that’s so crucial to the source material.
Turning such a devastating narrative into a song-and-dance show is not a dealbreaker, and that’s thanks to the cast. Barrino has some big shoes to fill, and they’re right in front of her: Whoopi Goldberg, who played Celie in Spielberg’s film, has a brief cameo as a midwife. If anything, Barrino has a stronger presence than Goldberg did. Taraji P. Henson is a natural as the singer Shug Avery, who befriends Celie, and she has a chemistry with Barrino that helps make their relationship stand out. Danielle Brooks is another powerhouse, coming on even stronger as the strong-willed Sofia than her predecessor Winfrey.
Despite the strong acting, through, the pacing seems a little off. There’s a tension between the magic realism of Bazawule’s “Kojo” and the conventions of a mainstream musical, so the tone veers from lyrical realism to stage-bound artifice. Although each cast member has at least one moment to shine, the drama isn’t always well-served by the music.
One reason is that the production numbers, while frequently dazzling, can be, well, muddy. While Brooks’s showcase “Hell No!” and Barrino’s closer “I’m Here” are both triumphal vocal performances, the former is staged with plenty of sweeping camera motion, while the latter is so static that it might just as well have been staged for a theater audience. Other dance scenes are poorly lit, with performers kept in shadow. Visually, this evokes film noir — a curious aesthetic choice that ends up being a distraction.
If there’s one character who consistently rises above the murk, it’s Mister: Whenever Domingo is on-screen, he commands your attention, a triple threat of singer, dancer and actor. Often seen playing the banjo, Mister comes off like an evil bluesman, and his inevitable comeuppance gives Bazawule the opportunity to stage a frightening, almost mythical scene on a stormy night.
In the end, “The Color Purple” manages to find a sweet spot between tragedy and entertainment. But is that really the best way to honor Walker’s vision?
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements including domestic abuse and child rape, sexuality, violence and strong language. 141 minutes.