“The Lord works in mysterious ways!” declares the exuberant opening number of The Color Purple (2023), directed by Blitz Bazawule. The celebratory sound and swinging rhythm can’t help but bring a smile to your face. But all that joyful singing is undercut by the image of a teenage girl who is pregnant by her own father. “If this is how God works,” the implicit rebuttal goes, “we’re better off on our own.” Despite a tragic premise, The Color Purple highlights one woman’s search for God in a broken world.
The Story Behind The Color Purple
The Color Purple follows the life of Celie (Fantasia Barrino), a Black woman living in 1900s Georgia. Celie is sexually abused by her father (Deon Cole) and married off at a young age to another abusive man, Mister (Colman Domingo). Along the way, she is separated from her beloved sister Nettie (Halle Baily) and her children. Through life-changing relationships with powerful women such as the beautiful songstress Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) and the fearless fighter Sofia (Danielle Brooks), Celie endeavors to reclaim her inherent dignity and find meaning in a broken world.
The Color Purple has seen several adaptations. The original novel by Alice Walker (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983) was quickly made into a movie, directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. The musical (book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) opened on Broadway in 2005 and was revived in 2015, winning two Tony Awards. The 2023 film is an adaptation of the musical, which was itself based on the film derived from the novel. With so many degrees of separation from the source material, one might question if the 2023 film could possibly bring anything of value to new audiences. Fortunately, this fresh portrayal of a classic story is as relevant today as it ever was.
Discovering God’s Love Through Other People
While renowned for its themes of racial liberation, feminism, and friendship, The Color Purple is a deeply religious tale. Celie’s primary preoccupation is with the existence of God, and the new film does not shy away from her quest for spiritual fulfillment. In fact, the movie is so open in its exploration of divine themes that it’s almost uncomfortable. The earnestness with which these characters pursue their faith feels out of place in the contemporary world, which is precisely why it’s so powerful. Celie is not seeking liberation, she is seeking God. Through her search for God, liberation comes.
Celie discovers God’s love through her connections with other people, such Shug Avery who – in addition to being a blues singer – is a bit of a theologian. Shug insists that God wants each one of us to experience joy: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” she asserts. In Shug’s eyes, the world is a work of art, created as an expression of divine love.
Celie also discovers that she has the power to bring God’s love to others. After Sofia is beaten and thrown in jail for refusing to work as a maid for a wealthy white woman, Celie visits Sofia in her bleak cell every week for six years. While the unjust imprisonment almost breaks Sofia’s spirit, Celie’s visits give her hope. When she is finally freed, she tells Celie, “When I see’d you – I know’d there is a God.” By practicing the corporal work of mercy of visiting the imprisoned, Celie embodies the love of Christ.
These religious themes have always been present in The Color Purple, but placing them front and center for an adaptation in 2023 brings a startling new urgency to the story. In a deeply secular world, audiences are still seeking God.
The Color Purple Still Resonates with Audiences
Rich themes aside, the music is phenomenal and sure to keep you humming for days on end. Additionally, the new movie makes room for essential storylines that were glossed over in the 1980s version, particularly the love affair between Shug and Celie.
It was a delight to witness young audiences react to this classic story for the first time. As I watched in the theater, a little girl danced in the aisle. There was audible crying when Celie was reunited with her sister and children, and a group of teenage girls broke out into applause when Celie declared, “I may be poor, I may be Black, I may be a woman… but I’m HERE!”
This adaptation is for them, and it’s as vital today as it ever was.