We’re Here: ‘The Color Purple’ and the Power of Black Music

How songs in the key of life have been integral to our survival.

Jeremy Helligar
Momentum
Published in
6 min readJan 1, 2024

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From left: Taraji P. Henson as Shug, Fantasia Barrino as Celie, and Danielle Brooks as Sofia in “The Color Purple” (Photo: Warner Bros.)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it too many times to count: I’m not really into musicals. As with everything, there are exceptions (The Sound of Music, Chicago, Evita), but in general, when characters suddenly burst into song, it not only interrupts the story; it takes me right out of it.

Let’s say, though, that you loved Hamilton and have no problem with characters who sing, dance, and rap when, in real life, they’d probably simply be talking. Can singing characters ruin a movie by devaluing the dramatic tension? Are some stories too sacred and somber to be zhuzhed up with choreography?

I thought about this a lot after watching the new movie musical adaptation of the 1985 film The Color Purple and discussing it with a friend. She made an interesting point about the song-and-dance-filled take on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which stars third-season American Idol champion Fantasia Barrino as Celie, the central character, and spans 36 years, from 1909 to 1945. Celie endures decades of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, Mister, a moniker that, as Taraji P. Henson’s Shug Avery suggests, is loaded with dark subtext.

“It was a strange movie experience; I just don’t think The Color Purple lends itself to song and dance,” my friend said.

When these characters burst into song, they aren’t just singing. They’re reflecting the reality of the Black American experience and how integral music has always been to it, not just to our lives but to our very survival.

At first, I agreed. Was the music supposed to make the dreary hopelessness of Celie’s existence more palatable to viewers? Were the filmmakers putting a smiley face on the proceedings to make the slapping and degradation less alienating to viewers than they were to detractors of the 1985 film, which some accused of perpetuating the stereotype that Black men are violent? The more I think about it, the more I realize that to dismiss the importance of music to…

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Jeremy Helligar
Momentum

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj