'Everyone walked away with part of themselves healed' – 'The Color Purple' reimagined
Some stories just seem to stay with us.
That's certainly the case for Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Her 1982 novel won a Pulitzer Prize and has since been the basis for a movie, then a Broadway musical, then a radio play. On Christmas Day, it's coming back to the big screen as a musical but with new music and a new treatment.
The story about African-American women who face physical and emotional brutality in early-20th-century Georgia — but manage to find hope and healing — is still an emotional whirlwind. In this latest version, director Blitz Bazawule finds new joy in the work — an antidote to some of the pain.
Morning Edition host Michel Martin spoke with Bazawule and actor Danielle Brooks, who just received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Sofia. That's the role Oprah Winfrey played in the 1985 Steven Spielberg-directed film — before her talk show went national and Oprah became... well, Oprah! She's a producer on this new adaptation.
MICHEL MARTIN, host, NPR's Morning Edition
I wanted to ask each of you how this story came into your life. I mean, it's very rare that a story or a work has this many lives. I mean, the original novel, then the original movie, then the Broadway play, and then the revival. Danielle Brooks, I'm going to start with you, because the story has been in your life for a long time. I've heard you tell the story of how you saw the play before you even knew you wanted to be an actor. Would you mind talking about that moment?
DANIELLE BROOKS, actor, The Color Purple
Yeah, I discovered this play in 2005. I had won this internship to New York, and I got to take a parent, and my father took me to see it. I could not believe just the amount of talent that was on that stage. I was just in awe. Like, I remember seeing the young Nettie and Celie in the tree. And I was like, "What? You can do this?"
Also that the story was so immersed in, wrapped up in God, and I'm a preacher's kid. It just meant so much to me. I saw a path for my life. So I was like, "I don't know how I'm going to do this, but I have to get out of South Carolina and pursue this thing."
I ended up attending Juilliard, and after Juilliard started to audition for a lot of Broadway/off-Broadway shows. I didn't understand why I was not getting them. With time, you realize: we make plans, but God has a strategy. And He was strategizing and orchestrating for me to have my first Broadway experience being in The Color Purple ten years later. So it was a full-circle moment for me.
And of course, later down the road, you start to hear buzz of this movie happening, and you're like, "Oh my gosh, will it be possible for me to be in it?" After six months of auditioning, I finally get that famous, now-viral moment with Miss Oprah passing the torch to me to play Sofia.
Was that your first Broadway play ever?
Yes, ma'am. First one I ever saw.
Wow. Okay, Blitz, same question to you. You grew up in Ghana. How did the work originally come to you? Did you read the book in college? Did you see the original movie? How did you first encounter the story?
BLITZ BAZAWULE, director, The Color Purple
Yes, it was assigned reading for us in college. That was the first time I'd read something that really connected the continent of Africa to the diaspora in a really meaningful way. I'm originally from Ghana, like you said, and I hadn't read much that was intentional about this yearning. And Nettie's exile to Africa became my conduit into this brilliant narrative.
Of course after that I ended up watching Steven Spielberg's cinematic classic, and that's how my full understanding of The Color Purple came about. But it's always been Alice Walker's book for me, and I always return to that at various points in my life. This was a really, really special point in my life, getting the opportunity to re-imagine it.
To remake a film originally directed by Steven Spielberg, I just have to ask if that was intimidating?
Absolutely. I mean, I was terrified. The Color Purple is sacred text. It is work that really means so much to so many people, been a source of healing for many. So if you don't have anything tangible and material to contribute, it's best to walk away. And that's what I attempted to do because I was terrified that I was going to be the one.
Also, the success rate of the property itself — from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Steven Spielberg's 11 [Oscar] nominations (which is still a travesty for not winning anything), and of course, the Tony Award-winning Broadway play – you go, "Wow, the bar is high." And so for me, I was nervous.
But what I did was: I went back to Alice's words. I was really looking for a way in which we could truly contribute significantly to the canon. I found it in the first page, in the first line where she says, "Dear God, I'm 14 years old." It was very clear to me that anyone who writes letters to God has a sprawling imagination. My job was to expand that imagination, give Celie everything she could imagine because we know Celie triumphs at the end of The Color Purple. That's part of the narrative arc. But we don't know how she actually worked her way from pain to power and glory. That, for me, was the most important thing here, to figure out how we were going to understand how she learned to work her way out of trauma, how she learned to forgive — which is a big part of her liberation — how she learned to love herself first and love others. Just having that weight into Celie was something that was going to be radical and a real, true contribution.
Blitz, we actually talked to Oprah Winfrey a few weeks ago, and we asked her why you were the person for this job, and she said she knew it from the very first meeting.
OPRAH WINFREY, producer, The Color Purple
What he brought was something I had never heard or thought of before: Being able to be victorious in your life when you are downtrodden. People often think that the downtrodden, the people who are oppressed, are docile. But people who are docile and oppressed and downtrodden often have the most active imaginations because they freed themselves first in their minds.
How did you arrive at that vision?
Well, I arrived at that vision by looking into my own life. My mother dealt with severe trauma. [She's] somebody who not only was a dreamer for herself, she dreamt these dreams for me.
My mother called me in 2015 and asked me if I planned to make a movie. At the time, I'd never made a movie, and I had no idea how to go about it. She told me she had a vision that if I would just do it, she had seen Hollywood and believed I would get there. I believe what my mom says, and it's always been this way.
When I was young, I drew a lot and my mom would give me a space in the house. That became my refuge. Actually, when I got this job, that was the first thing that happened to me: I became that kid again with that sprawling imagination.
The way I was able to work my way out of Ghana, Accra, with all the severe challenges and lack of opportunity to this place, was based on imagination. Imagination that my mom so graciously bequeathed me and my siblings, and that is how I arrived here.
So when it came to Celie, even though the source of trauma was different, I knew and understood how people like my mother had built in their heads first this grand life of healing for us. Asking myself: how does one who doesn't have the opportunity dream these bigger dreams for themselves? And the most divine hand that leads you through all of that? I'm a beneficiary of that. I knew that if I could just approximate that for Celie's life, then in fact we'll have a great opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the canon.
How did you get over the fear factor for yourself? I noticed you kind of glided past that. You thought it might be too big or what?
I mean, several people said no. When you think about what this work means to so many people, you don't want to be a pariah, you know? You don't want to be the one who devalued The Color Purple. Your name is forever tarnished. I may never work again based on that mistake.
I really walk in purpose, in courage. But this was a heavy one for me. I understand its healing qualities, and if my perspective wasn't right, I would have failed. I think that what made it possible for me, number one, was finding a way that was true and authentic to people I know who had dealt with abuse and trauma. I felt that if I could just lean into what I know, which is the imaginative plane, then ultimately I would have the opportunity to create something new and something that will be welcomed in our society.
Also, let's remember: Celie's a Black woman from the rural South. To give a Black woman from the rural South an imagination is one of the most radical things in cinema. So I knew that if I could just lean into that, that's what gave me the courage. And of course, the support of my incredible cast and the love and protection of my producers.
To give a Black woman from the rural South an imagination is one of the most radical things in cinema.
Danielle, you're playing the role that made Oprah Winfrey famous. I mean, Sofia was her first film role. You know, it's easy to forget this now, but this was her first national exposure. She did not have that national show yet; she was a popular Chicago host. So it's pretty important to her, and she's talked about that. But here's what she said about your performance:
Let me tell you, that girl turned up the volume on Sofia. She turned up the heat. She brings joyfulness and a playfulness and a sassiness to it. That is all hers. That is all hers.
Was there anything intimidating about it? And how did you move past it?
I think there's several things. One, having had a year on Broadway, eight shows a week, really delving into the character and knowing her inside and out really helped build my confidence first for the audition. But once I got through that part, when Miss O did call me to give me this role, that's when I felt I had the permission. Like hearing it from her mouth told me that she is saying, "Danielle, make this your own."
So from that moment, I felt a freedom. And then the first thing I did after that, I talked to Scott Sanders, our producer, and I said, "Do you mind trying to get me on the phone with her?" Because when I did it on Broadway, we did not have any communication at that time. I was just too shy to talk to her. Maybe like an hour later, me and Miss Oprah were on the phone talking, and she just shared with me so many stories from her time.
At the end of that conversation, I asked her, "Do you mind praying with me?" Because one thing I know is that Oprah has to have a direct line to God. Everything she touches seems to turn out really well. So I feel like it's happened. I knew in that moment that my life was going to change. And I'm still seeing the fruits of my labor here. Every day it's something else, you know? And I've just been so grateful for all of it.
Why do you think this work has endured for so long in so many different forms? I think people forget how controversial it was when it first came out. I mean, it won a Pulitzer Prize and it's been much acclaimed, but people said it's too much, it makes Black men look bad, they didn't believe some of these things actually happened to people. Why do you think it has endured for so long in so many different forms?
I mean, it's blessed. Miss Oprah talked about this before — and I'm paraphrasing – but it does have to do with the ancestors. Something about these stories that we are cultivating and stirring up again, these are lives that were really lived by people, our people. I just feel like it goes back to Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning story — and more than anything, these lessons about coming into yourself, being the hero of your own story, forgiving, learning how to love, learning how to get back up on your feet. That will forever remain a part of being a human. And as long as that is happening, which is until we die, this story will have meaning. This story will have purpose.
I think for certain the story is about going from being unseen to seen, which is as human as it gets. We're all dealing with this invisibility. It begins with invisibility to ourselves. We can't see who we are. And so, we lash out at the world. It takes seeing who you are and loving who you are and then beginning to build yourself. And then somehow the whole world sees who you are. I think that's a very human story.
I also really believe that what Alice Walker bequeathed us was a very specific story, the story of a Black woman in the rural South. Because of that specificity, there lies universality. We kept that in the back of our minds while we were working on this film, to make sure we were authentically us. These feelings of oppression and freedom, the oscillation between joy and pain: these are things that are human. And I think that those two things are what makes this story truly enduring.
What do you hope you have added to the legacy of this work?
Well, first, I hope I've added some deeper layering. You know, Mister's character may have been perceived as one dimensional. Colman Domingo, who brilliantly plays Mister, and I had deep conversations around: how do you make him human? How do we understand how his dreams deferred make him who he is? They say: "Hurt people hurt people." That is truly what this story's about. So that layering is very important.
I also ultimately hope that people take away the healing qualities that have always existed in The Color Purple, but amplified in this one. One of the most rewarding things that ever happened was when I reached out to Fantasia [Barrino] to play this role [Celie]. She was deeply hesitant. And I understood why: she had dealt with deep trauma. And when she played the role on Broadway, she struggled to find that balance. After, you know, convincing her to play the role, she was asked what's the take away? And she said, "I was healed."
There's no award or reward anyone can ever give me that would equate to being a small part of my sister's healing journey. That is why we do this work. And I believe that everyone who had a hand in this project walked away with a part of themselves healed.
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