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'The Color Purple' is back on the big screen, this time with song and dance

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

You've probably heard a new adaptation of "The Color Purple" hits theaters Christmas Day, a musical starring Fantasia and Taraji P. Henson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COLOR PURPLE")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Shug, singing) Sister, you've been on my mind. Oh, sister, we're two of a kind.

RASCOE: The acclaimed Alice Walker novel has lived many lives since it was first published in 1982. There was the 1985 Steven Spielberg film starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, then the hit Broadway musical and the revival and now this new movie adaptation. NPR's Aisha Harris is something of an expert on "The Color Purple." She did a deep dive on the original movie for Pop Culture Happy Hour, which she also hosts. Hey, Aisha. Welcome to the program. So it's the return of the Ayeshas show. So I'm glad to have you back.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Yes.

RASCOE: Remind us of the story at the heart of "The Color Purple." It obviously keeps inspiring artists to tell it and retell it.

HARRIS: The original book and the movie and the shows that have come after it are set in the early 1900s, and they span many years. And Alice Walker's story tells this narrative of Celie, a teenage girl who suffers a lot of trauma and heartache. She's impregnated by the man she believes to be her father. She's torn apart from her best friend and her sister, Nettie. And she's forced to marry an older man named Mister who abuses and rapes her. And the book is told in an epistolary form and traces Celie's eventual triumph and healing from her traumas. And, you know, through that, she finds love and friendship with some of the women in her life, including Shug and Sofia.

RASCOE: And Steven Spielberg took some heat when the 1985 film came out. Like, what happened with that?

HARRIS: Yeah, there was a lot that happened. But one of the biggest things is that, you know, Steven Spielberg is obviously white. He's a white male director who was adapting this Black woman's story. Up to that point, he was mainly known for making, you know, blockbusters - "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," "E.T." And so once the movie came out, there were definitely criticisms about how he handled the material, especially a character like Harpo, who is the son of Mister. He was seen as being depicted as a very comedic kind of buffoon. And, of course, a lot of Black men were very upset about how they were depicted and the fact that all of the Black men in this film are very violent towards the women in their lives. And I think it's really interesting because a lot of Black women at the time and to this day found this to be very true to their own personal experiences. And so there was a lot of controversy around that original film.

RASCOE: How does this movie try to address some of those concerns? And how does it being a musical - like, how does that affect the telling of this story?

HARRIS: Look. This is a very glossy version in comparison to the 1985 film. And it is presented as a big, bursting musical. We have giant ensemble numbers, a lot of really fantastic dancing. Shout out to Fatima Robinson, the legend, the choreographer. There's also the aspect of the queer romance between Shug and Celie. This is very explicit in the book, and in the 1985 version, there was also critiques about the fact that it didn't go far enough. I think that this new version also kind of falls into that same category. This is a movie that is way more interested in happiness, joy and doesn't want to spend as much time on the more traumatic aspects of the story.

RASCOE: Is there a scene or a character that really speaks to how the new movie handles the material differently?

HARRIS: The scene when Nettie and Celie are separated and forced to be separated by Mister. In original film, it's very, very visceral, whereas here, it's kind of muted. It goes by much, much quicker. And that's kind of a recurring theme throughout the movie of scenes sort of not getting quite to a point where, yes, we don't have as much trauma involved, but then what do we do with that? Why aren't we addressing it or letting it be a part of the feeling and emotion? Let the characters really experience that emotion, as opposed to just immediately rushing into the next scene or even rushing into a song before we've fully been immersed in those feelings.

RASCOE: Well, bottom line, I'm going to ask you, is this a good movie? And no pressure. Like, I'm going to see this movie.

HARRIS: Yeah.

RASCOE: But is this a good movie?

HARRIS: I think this is a good movie with great performances. You know, if you are someone who really loved this story in whatever iteration it's been in, I think you'll find something to take away from it, even if it's not quite the same as the 1985 movie or the original book.

RASCOE: NPR's Aisha Harris hosts Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COLOR PURPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Shug Avery's coming to town. Shug Avery's coming. Shug Avery's coming to town. You know that she's coming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.