By Lynn Venhaus

A strong sense of community, sisterhood and triumph over adversity runs through the big, splashy movie musical adaptation of “The Color Purple.”

What an inspiration Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1982 novel was 41 years ago, and its historic significance has not diminished. It told Celie’s powerful story through letters to her sister and children, which isn’t the easiest type of source material to adapt for film, nor are the horrors that she has endured. But a different presentation is a new way to see how one woman’s journey to self-realization resonates.

A determined Celie Harris (Fantasia Barrino) faces many hardships in life, but through the years, finds extraordinary strength and hope, and learns self-acceptance.

Purple symbolizes strength, transformation, power, wisdom, bravery, and all meanings can be applied in this version.

Celie’s tough path started in 1909 in rural Georgia. She’s a poor, black 14-year-old girl who has delivered two babies, impregnated by the man she thinks is her father. They are taken away from her. 

Against her will, she has been given to a widower Albert “Mister” Johnson, who emotionally and physically abuses her. She must serve him and his unruly children. As the heartless husband perpetuating a long cycle of suffering, Colman Domingo doesn’t soften the villainous aspects. However, after he is cursed, you do see a gradual change.

Celie’s endurance through deep-rooted cruelty and oppression is heart-tugging, and Barrino depicts her sorrows, love and indomitable spirit with courage and grace. 

Fantasia, an American Idol winner who performed the role for eight months on Broadway, portrays Celie’s faith as unwavering through tough times, and how she relied on her beloved sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) and her church to raise her up. Her kindness will eventually lead to good things.

Things change, through the people she meets, but she also changes people. The nurturing Celie meets the glamorous and sophisticated nightclub chanteuse Shug Avery, and they have a deep bond even though the singer has an ongoing affair with Mister and a marriage to Grady (Jon Batiste). Taraji P. Henson is a flamboyant and fiery Shug, and sashays admirably through “Push the Button,” In a role added for the movie, David Alan Grier plays her father, Rev. Avery.

One of Mister’s grown children, Harpo (Corey Hawkins) , marries Sofia, and Danielle Brooks is marvelous as the strong-willed free spirit, known for her independence and speaking her mind, with her phrase: “Hell, no!” even a song title that’s a showstopper. She cannot be ‘tamed,’ and her outspokenness will bring her harm. Brooks reprises her Broadway role and is the dynamo here.

As the story has evolved from book to movie to musical to movie musical, the familiar main points haven’t changed, although how much time is devoted to turning points has varied. 

For whatever reason a movie that had been smoothly running along feels rushed and haphazard in its last act, because of choppy storytelling and erratic pacing. But overall, director Blitz Bazawule makes the theatrical elements of a stage play cinematic.

Dan Lausten’s cinematography, Paul Denham Austerberry’s production design and Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s costumes — 40 years of style — are vibrant components of the ultimately uplifting and very spiritual essence of this work.

The dynamic ensemble deeply feels their experiences, but the film finds its emotional center in the musical numbers. The score is an appealing mix of gospel, jazz, ragtime, blues, and African beats, with the Broadway songs by Brenda Russell, the late Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray that bring out the purpose, yearnings and period of these early 20th century lives. Sixteen songs are from the stage musical and there are several new ones: “Keep It Movin'” (written by Halle Bailey) and “Superpower.”

Mega-talented Kris Bowers composed the film’s score, and Fatima Robinson’s choreography is joyous.

Steven Spielberg directed the first adaptation – a moving 1985 film, which famously was nominated for 11 Oscars, but didn’t win any. Spielberg is among the producers of this version, so is Quincy Jones, who scored the original, and so is Oprah Winfrey, who was Oscar-nominated as Sofia.

Jones and Winfrey helped launch the 2005 musical on Broadway, which was revived in 2015, and this is a combination of the two. While this version, adapted by Marcus Gardley from Marsha Norman’s book, doesn’t shy away from Celie’s harsh life, its sisterhood focus sweetens the story. 

Over the course of several decades, what the women learn, how they grow and overcome obstacles will tug at our hearts, so that the mercy shown in the second act leads to triumph– and somewhat of a redemption for Mister.

The heart and soul of any version is Celie, and it’s no fluke that both actresses who played Celie on Broadway — LaChanze in the original 2005 production and Cynthia Erivo in the 2015 revival — won Tony Awards (Director John Doyle’s re-imagining also won the Tony Award for Best Revival). When Fantasia sings the powerhouse “I’m Here,” she puts an exclamation point on a sensational debut.

Yes, it’s gut-wrenching, but it’s also about healing, resilience, and the mighty power of love. Throughout our history, we have learned that we should never forget what’s happened before, those teachable moments that make us better people.

The ensemble is top-tier in every way. Singers Ciara and H.E.R. are elder Nettie and Squeak respectively, and Louis Gossett Jr. has a memorable turn as Ol’ Mister. Even the brief parts contribute a sense of faith, hope and charity that church communities share.

If you believe, as I do, that if you spread light and love in the world, and are a good person, then the universe responds in kind. That is ultimately why Celie’s story is relatable. She never gave up her belief in goodness, and finally realized her worth as a human being.

While musicals are a hard sell as movies these days, “The Color Purple” has enduring appeal for what it says and what it means. The cast makes this version shine, for they bring emotional truth to each role.

“The Color Purple” is a 2023 musical directed by Blitz Bazawule and starring Fantasia Barrino, Colman Domingo, Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Bailey, Ciara, Jon Batiste, Gabriella Wilson (H.E.R.), Louis Gossett Jr., David Alan Grier. It is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language, and runs 2 hours, 20 minutes. It opens in theaters Dec. 25. Lynn’s grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus
A road trip from hell, as documented on a viral Twitter thread six years ago, is the starting point for this unusual film.

The genesis of “Zola” is a 148-count tweetstorm by A’ziah King in 2015. Known as Zola, she was working as a Hooters waitress in Detroit, when a customer, an exotic dancer named Stefani (Riley Keough), convinces her to dance for some quick cash – then invites her for a weekend in Florida, also to strip, with the promise of easy money.

But the trip becomes a nightmarish 48-hour odyssey with Stefani prostituting herself while Zola is expected to be an “escort” too. Along for the ride is Stefani’s idiot boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and her dangerous pimp X (Colman Domingo).

After 86 minutes, I felt like my I.Q. had dropped 50 points and I wanted to take a shower. But like a bad car wreck on the highway, you can’t quit staring at it in disbelief.

The film deals with increasingly dangerous and desperate situations, and when it involves the sex industry, that is to be expected. The film’s subject matter is sleazy, yes, but director Janicza Bravo doesn’t treat it in an overly erotic way, but rather realistically. The transactions are about survival — a way of life in a scuzzy underworld of sex and violence.

However, you are warned –  the graphic sexual content includes close-ups of male genitalia – although less female nudity than one might expect.

While the cast excels at creating these outrageous characters, they really are a sad lot – and if you have seen “The Florida Project” and “Hustlers,” folks without life’s advantages. There’s also similarities to “Spring Breakers,” but really a singular situation.

Riley Keough plays Stefani, a character like the one she played in “American Honey,” only with less of a conscience and a soul. She lives out loud, on stage, and doesn’t give it a second thought. She affects a ‘street’ accent that she might think is cool or tough, but it instead pathetic.

Her doofus of a boyfriend, Derrek, hilariously played by Nicholas Braun (brilliant as Cousin Greg in “Succession,” watches videos and aspires to monetize such videos one day. He is clueless.

While Stefani and Derrek appear to be sorry specimens of the public school system, Zola has street smarts and learned through the school of hard knocks. She refuses to partake in X’s plan and holds her ground. But even she can’t prevent this walk on the wild side.

Just a withering look from Taylour Paige’s Zola, and you know exactly how she feels. Paige, a trained dancer, is a revelation here. Most known for a TV show, “Hit the Floor,” as Zola, she does more in one look than most people do in a string of sentences – and her side-eye is genius. You feel what she’s feeling just on body language alone.

X, as played by the sublime Colman Domingo, is a low-level con artist and morally bankrupt guy shrouded in mystery. Domingo plays him as a man used to living on the edge – but prefers to control the circus. If you saw Morgan Freeman in “Street Smart,” then you know the territory X covers.

Domingo, one of our finest actors, was memorable in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Selma” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” as Regina King’s husband. You see his name in the credits, and you know he’ll deliver. He is explosive in a long-simmering threatening way.

What parts are embellished and what areas stick to the truth aren’t clear – unless you read the 148 tweets, which are no longer on Twitter, but available on different sites.

Zola had something to say, and she let it out. This is the first film, as I recall, based on short unfiltered bursts of exasperation, frustration and just ‘let me tell you what happened to me.’

With social media so extensive in everyone’s lives, of course, we’re here now. But the film is also based on David Kushner’s article in Rolling Stone. Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, who wrote “Slave Play,” adapted it all for the screen.

The filmmaker has made some interesting choices, most of it fresh and different, which signals that an innovative artist is just getting started. She helmed another unusual indie, “Lemon,” which also opened at Sundance.

“Zola” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – not this year – and the distributors held it for a big-screen experience. A crowd viewing is the definite way to go.

Nicholas Braun, Riley Keogh, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo

Not wanting to come across as a snob or prude, this is my reaction to a seamy underbelly of society that we rarely glimpse of in such a revealing way, which is both frightening and troubling at the same time.

In the film business, we haven’t seen the last of any of the principals or the director. “Zola” is one of those zeitgeist movies people will buzz about, because, after all, those tweets went viral.

“Zola” is a 2020 drama-comedy directed by Janicza Bravo and Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun.
Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, and violence, including a sexual assault, it runs 1 hour, 36 minutes. It is only in theaters beginning June 30. Lynn’s Grade: B-