Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 26, 2023 5:28 pm 
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Alice Walker once more, through a haze, brightly

The new film of The Color Purple originates of course in Alice Walker's much admired and controversial epistolary novel in dialect, but seen through the 1985 Spielberg movie version and transformed through versions of a more recent Broadway musical adaptation produced several times. To describe its origins in reverse, it’s a movie-musical based on a musical based on a movie based on a book. That's okay, of course - Shakespeare did something like it - but watching this new movie I felt I was looking through a haze, through shadows, at wonderful performers, in surprisingly huge spaces. For viewers well versed in the stories, fresh from a reading of the book and a viewing of the stage musical and the eighties film it will be easier to tune in. But for me it was all a bit of a blur. I was lost.

Yes, it was clear that, in these seemingly grandiose and beautiful spaces represented as the habitat of poor black people in the early 1900's, a young woman called Celie was beaten by her father Alonso. A man known only as Mistah asks Alonso for Celie's sister Nettie (Halle Berry, Clara) but he gives him Celie instead, Nettie runs away to be with Celie but Mistah banishes her and the sisters lose touch.

But the wild singing and dancing distracted from the action. What was it all about?

Then there is Mistah's son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), who marries the lively Sophia, whose independence inspires Celie - and us, the audience. Later there comes the incredible Shug Avery, a cabaret singer who is unwell, and arrives in a grand period jalopy - with a chauffeur. Celie and Shug become friends - and more (though never as much more in this film or in Spielberg's than in the book). There are many other complications, including the discovery - spoiler alert - that Alfonso all along wasn't really Celie's and Nettie's father. The later proceedings are not quite as much confused by song and dance, because there is less of that in the second half of this 140-minute film. But when you get confused in the beginning of a piece, your going is never going to be easy.

The performers are clearly great. Some of them have an awards season glow already upon them. These would be the three "sistahs", Fantasia Barrino as Celie, Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Danielle Brooks (from the stage musical) as Sofia. And there is also Colman Domingo as Mister. Domingo has a double glow on him, having just starred in Rustin. There is also the venerable Louis Gossett Jr. as 'Ol' Mister. And all the singers and dancers, who have much energy, if you like that sort of thing. It seemed out of place on the bayou, to me. But when you learn from an interview that Ghanan-born rapper-singer-director Bazawule felt "the key was to 'oscillate between the real and the unreal,' you start to see the disconnect is intentional.

One new thing for you: natural light. It's become almost a fetish with filmmakers today. Old movies, especially musicals, were shot in studios and carefully, brightly lit. The effort to avoid that means that half of every scene surprisingly often winds up appearing in shadow. There is also an effort to shoot things through a haze (or "contre-jour," against the light) manufactured by filters and camera angles. So the light is not ultimately "natural" after all. It's just a new kind of artificial, in which things aren't as clear or bright as they used to be.

The action takes place in Georgia, back in the day. There are makeshift bridges over southern waters, trees draped with vines. And out into this come teams of dancers dancing up a storm, waving their arms up and down, back and forth a million miles a second, like the rowing team in The Boys in the Boat (which also opened on Christmas Day). It's a little overwhelming and a little too fast.

So are the human events. A young woman is told she has to get married now, and bang! - she's taken away in marriage. A young woman has a baby and bang! a mean man takes her newborn away from her. She can't even hold the baby boy another minute. It is said that the book and the Spielberg movie were criticized for emphasizing stereotypes of the violence of African American men. But in the musical film, such events as these simply seem unreal on every level. I saw the Spielberg film at the time, and remember it as being sentimental and exaggerated, but strongly identifiable and deeply touching.

There is too much whiz-bang gauzy strangeness about Blitz Bazawule's film to identify with. It's a unique, delicately phantasmagoric spectacle, but it's at many removes from any emotional reality. Perhaps the distancing effect, for some, will make its harsh realities of early African American life more real, as the "Alienation Effect" of Bertold Brecht's plays gets across their ideas more strongly by forcing the audience not to identify with the action. For me this was an impressive and beautiful movie, but not, like the radical 2006 Spring Awakening, whose Broadway version I walked out of shaken to the core, a musical drama whose emotions resonate with me authentically.

This is a film that will be remembered for its details - it's location filming, its lighting, its remarkable lead and ensemble cast - who will get Oscar nominations, but not for the film as a whole.

The Color Purple, 140 mins., debuted at Savannah Oct. 27, 2023, and premiered in London Nov. 20. It released in US theaters Dec. 25, 2023. Releasing in many other countries through early Apr., 2024. Metacritic rating: 70%.


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