Oprah and ‘The Color Purple’ Stars on the New Musical Remake: “It’s Bright. It’s Vibrant. It’s Us”

Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks and producer Oprah Winfrey unpack the "cinematic heirloom," why they were never going to land Beyoncé and why so much is still riding on its success.

Oprah and ‘The Color Purple’ Stars on the New Musical Remake: “It’s Bright. It’s Vibrant. It’s Us”


Of all the emotions that The Color Purple evokes, joy is typically not among them.

After all, the movie based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel centers on a Black woman who suffers unspeakable sexual and physical abuse from the men in her life, sees her children taken away from her at birth, lives during the punishing times of a post-slavery South and is belittled by the outside world as unworthy of love. While her journey, told through her letters to God, eventually arrives at an intersection of peace and forgiveness, joy is something that seems fleeting for much of Celie’s story.

The musical remake of the 1985 classic film, out Dec. 25, doesn’t change the narrative, but does filter it through a different lens — focusing on the moments that inspire Celie, the women in her life who lift her to that point and, more important, the healing that restores not only her humanity, but that of those around her.

Reflecting on the story, the three female stars — Fantasia BarrinoDanielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson — speak in reverence of the original film and the book. Henson likens it to Shakespeare for the Black community, and Brooks says, “I’ve been describing it as our cinematic heirloom. And I just really truly feel that’s what it is. It’s the thing that you cherish the most that was passed on since 1985. You take care of it and you pass it on to the next.”

Fantasia Barrino, Oprah Winfrey, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks were photographed December 3 at the Houdini Estate in Los Angeles.
Fantasia Barrino, Oprah Winfrey, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks were photographed December 3 at the Houdini Estate in Los Angeles. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANIELLE LEVITT

Despite that reverence, Henson can also see some of its flaws. “The first movie missed culturally. We don’t wallow in the muck. We don’t stay stuck in our traumas. We laugh, we sing, we go to church, we dance, we celebrate, we fight for joy, we find joy, we keep it. That’s all we have,” Henson tells THR during a recent interview, with Barrino and Brooks sitting by her side. “We don’t have power. We are continuously oppressed, kept under a thumb. So what else can we do but laugh and celebrate life? We have to, otherwise we would die. So as soon as you see the first frame, you’re going to know that this movie is different. The coloring is different. It’s light, it’s bright, it’s vibrant. It’s us.”

“Vibrant” could also be used to describe the trio, whose strong bond was forged during filming nearly two years ago. They laugh, finish one another’s sentences and even shed tears. The Color Purple has served as a balm for the women, who have endured their own pain as Black actresses in a business where starring roles like this are still a rarity, and a struggle to attain. “It has been real with each other. I think that’s been the beauty of all of this, we don’t have to sugarcoat things with one another. We can have deep conversations about the hurt and pain we’ve been through in this industry,” Brooks says. “Me and the sisterhood is real,” adds Henson. “Everything I do, I’m doing so that I can pass the baton, because eventually the torch is being passed. I’m not going to do this forever. But for you coming up behind me, I just want you to have an easier road.”

When the SAG-AFTRA strike dragged past Halloween into November, Oprah Winfrey started to get nervous. As a producer of the big-budget remake, she fretted about the possibility that her stars — including Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Halle Bailey and Gabriella Wilson, better known as the Oscar-winning singer-songwriter H.E.R. — wouldn’t be able to promote the film. “One of the reasons why I was praying, praying, praying that the strike would be over is because I so wanted this experience, the experience that I had with The Color Purple in my life, to be shared by all of these women,” Winfrey tells The Hollywood Reporter, before tearing up. “I thought, ‘If the strike doesn’t end, they will never get to have that ride.’ And there’s nothing like that ride. There’s nothing like being out in the world, being able to talk about it and to share the beautiful energy of everything that Alice wanted when she wrote that story. It’s like every time we speak, we get to talk the ancestors up. And so there’s not a person on this film who doesn’t realize that the film is bigger than all of us.”

Winfrey talks about the divine in relation to her connection to The Color Purple frequently, describing it as life-changing on multiple fronts. When the book was first released and she read its first words — about a young girl who is raped by her stepfather and gives birth to their children — it mirrored her own life, having had a stillborn child as the result of a rape as a teen. A local talk show host in Chicago at the time, she heard the movie was being made and was determined to play any role in the production, assuming it would be a non-acting one, but producer Quincy Jones saw her on local television and sought her out to audition for Sofia.

From left Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks of the feature adaptation of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, which Henson likens to Shakespeare for the Black community.
From left: Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks of the feature adaptation of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, which Henson likens to Shakespeare for the Black community. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANIELLE LEVITT


Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Jones. Winfrey recalls reaching out to casting director Reuben Cannon after auditioning, with him curtly telling her that he was the one who would be doing the calling — if she even got the job. “He said, ‘You know who just left my office? Alfre Woodard. She’s a real actress. You have no experience.’ So I thought for sure I was not going to get it. And I went to this retreat to just regroup myself, to get over the fact that I wasn’t going to get it,” she recalls.

“I felt like, ‘God, why did you do this? Why did you let me get this close?’ I was running around the track at this health retreat, which they called a fat farm at the time, and praying and crying and singing ‘I Surrender All.’ And the moment that I felt like I released it, a woman comes running out and says, ‘There’s a phone call for you.’ ” It was Cannon. “He said, ‘Steven [Spielberg] wants to see you in his office tomorrow. I hear you’re at a fat farm and if you lose a pound, you lose the part.’ Wow. That’s a miracle.”

Winfrey’s depiction of Sofia, her first onscreen acting role, not only led to her first Oscar nomination, but also set her up for the one-name icon status that she is certain would not have happened had she not gotten the role. She credits visiting Spielberg’s Amblin Studios with giving her the realization that she could have her own studio, leading to the birth of Harpo Productions. Even controlling her own talk show came from her Color Purple experience: Her bosses made her forfeit three years’ vacation (yes, you read that right) in order to shoot the movie, and she vowed she would never be put in that position again, so she bought the rights to The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 29 media-landscape-changing seasons.

The role also led to a decades-long connection to the material. Twenty years after the original movie, producer Scott Sanders devised a plan for a musical rendition for Broadway, which Winfrey was initially opposed to. She eventually became a believer, so much so that she ended up coming aboard as an executive producer of the Tony-winning production and its subsequent revival. But when Sanders suggested turning it into a film, that’s where Winfrey drew the line.

“For many years, I just thought, ‘Leave it alone,’ ” she says. “Maybe it was ego, that I just felt like we’ve already done it, and I don’t think you can do it any better and now it is actually a classic. How are you going to improve on that?”

Then the #MeToo movement happened. Suddenly, Winfrey could see a new reason to bring The Color Purple to a new audience. “[Sanders] started saying, ‘Don’t you feel that there’s something with the energy of what’s happening to women and this movement? Maybe it’s time to go to Steven again,’ ” she recalls. “So I called up Steven and he said yes.”

Says producer Oprah Winfrey, “There’s not a person on this film who doesn’t realize it’s bigger than all of us.” All were photographed Dec. 3 at the Houdini Estate in Los Angeles. Oprah Winfrey was styled by Annabelle Harron.
Says producer Winfrey, “There’s not a person on this film who doesn’t realize it’s bigger than all of us.” All were photographed Dec. 3 at the Houdini Estate in Los Angeles. Oprah Winfrey was styled by Annabelle Harron. (On Winfrey: Ralph Lauren Collection) PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANIELLE LEVITT


Spielberg, like Winfrey, had been opposed to a film adaptation of the musical adaptation of the original movie. But what Sanders was pitching, in his view, was so much more than a remake, or even what the musical had been — a version that, while hewing to the original story, reshapes its vision. “Obviously, Steven’s film lives in the culture and is a classic. No one would ever want to remake his movie,” Sanders says. But, with the help of screenwriter Marcus Gardley, a new vision emerged: What if the brutal abuse of Celie isn’t the core focus of the film, and instead it explores Celie’s imagination? An imagination that shows her hopes, dreams and her own agency?

That new vision was led in part by director Blitz Bazawule, who made his feature debut with The Burial of Kojo but perhaps is best known as the co-director of Beyoncé’s eye-popping Black Is King, a fantastical, visually stunning retelling of The Lion King.

“The biggest thing was, what can we say that hasn’t been said yet? That was, for me, the hardest part. I went back to Alice Walker’s book. This was on her first page, in the first line: ‘Dear God.’ That for me was, ‘All right, that’s the line.’ Anyone who can write letters to God must have an imagination,” Bazawule says. “And that imaginative plane became the place in which we were going to justify our reason for being.”

• • •

It’s that vision that lured Barrino to the project, after initially telling Sanders no. “When Blitz gave her an imagination, that for me was perfect,” says Barrino, who received raves when she stepped into the role of Celie on Broadway nearly 15 years ago. The experience remains a dark time in Barrino’s memory. The third-season American Idol champ was a platinum-selling star but had never performed such a grueling schedule of eight shows a week.

More critical, however, was her emotional state. Barrino, who gave birth to her first child as a teen, had gone through her own trauma that in some ways mirrored Celie’s. (I recall interviewing a subdued Barrino at the time, and she noted how the material was affecting her psyche: “I’m being told every day that I’m ugly. You can’t play the part if you don’t put yourself in her shoes and live her life. So I carry that stuff with me.”) Says Barrino today, “I probably would have continued to say no if [Bazawule] did not give her an imagination, because even though Celie went through so many traumatic things at a young, young age, even though her sister Nettie seemed to get the better end of things and Celie was handed the worst, in her imagination, she shows how she made it through all of that.”

While others had played Celie on Broadway, including Cynthia Erivo, and still others lobbied for the role, for Bazawule, Barrino was the only choice. “I was looking for someone who embodied the spirit and the soul of the character, and had the emotional depth to reach there. And also had a powerful voice,” Bazawule says. “It was very clear that Fantasia had a well and depth of experience, personal and emotional, and the ability to reach into it. It was more or less finding a kindred spirit and somebody who had a deep well, somebody who was going to interrogate the character deeply. Nobody could have done it better than Fantasia, certainly not in this iteration.”

Fantasia Barrino was styled by Daniel Hawkins
Fantasia Barrino was styled by Daniel Hawkins. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANIELLE LEVITT


Winfrey felt the same about Brooks, who was Tony-nominated and earned a Grammy for her turn as Sofia in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple in 2015. In a brilliant bit of viral movie marketing, Winfrey taped her call to Brooks — who burst into tears before the words could get out that she’d nabbed the role — and put it on social media. “Danielle, my God, I knew from day one,” Winfrey says. “I felt that one of the most fun moments was being able to call her, because I obviously had watched her on Broadway. There were other people, but she embodied it.”

It’s a character that had long taken up space in Brooks’ spirit. As a girl growing up in the South, when she first watched Winfrey as Sofia, it was one of the first times she saw a version of herself onscreen: a woman who was dark-skinned, full-figured, opinionated, fierce and living life as fully as she could. “It changed my life, watching her live in her power,” she recalls.

Brooks would go on to make acting her first love, attend Juilliard, make a dynamic debut as Taystee on Orange Is the New Black, and, in a divine full-circle moment, land the Sofia role on Broadway.

Yet when Brooks was told, despite all her Broadway accolades, that she’d need to audition like everyone else, her first thought was straight out of Sofia’s mouth: “Hell no.” Then, after thinking about how badly she wanted it, she swallowed her pride and was determined to do everything she needed to do to get the part. She had long interviews with Bazawule and sent a taped audition in which she sang, followed by … months of silence.

Discouraged but not defeated, she asked James Gunn, her director on the Peacemaker set, for his advice. “He was like, ‘Yes, you should definitely shoot your shot.’ I remember having this long conversation with him about faith and trust in the process. So I wrote a letter to say, ‘Hey, I love this part, and even if I’m not your Sofia, I wish this project well.’ I didn’t hear anything back, which was like, ‘OK, that’s part of trust in the process,’ ” she recalls.

Henson also found herself having to audition for the role of Shug Avery, even though Bazawule wanted her for the part — a bitter pill for the Oscar-nominated actress to swallow. For Henson, it felt like not only a slight, but emblematic of her years-long struggle to even remain at the level she’s attained. Despite her Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, her Emmy nominations for her role of Cookie on the blockbuster series Empire and her acclaimed turn in Hidden Figures, Henson says she — along with other Black actresses — remains stuck on a rung when it comes to the prestige and money afforded by Hollywood to others in similar positions. She points out that besides Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar win for best actress in Monster’s Ball — Berry being the only Black woman to ever win the trophy — most Black women are nominated for supporting roles, even if they are leads. Henson’s lack of an Oscar nomination as lead actress for her starring role in Hidden Figures remains a particular sore point.

“I’ve been getting paid and I’ve been fighting tooth and nail every project to get that same freaking [fee] quote. And it’s a slap in the face when people go, ‘Oh girl, you work all the time. You always working.’ Well, goddammit, I have to. It’s not because I wish I could do two movies a year and that’s that. I have to work because the math ain’t mathing. And I have bills,” she vents, with some tears. “Listen, I’ve been doing this for two decades and sometimes I get tired of fighting because I know what I do is bigger than me. I know that the legacy I leave will affect somebody coming up behind me. My prayer is that I don’t want these Black girls to have the same fights that me and Viola [Davis], Octavia [Spencer], we out here thugging it out,” Henson says. “Otherwise, why am I doing this? For my own vanity? There’s no blessing in that. I’ve tried twice to walk away [from the business]. But I can’t, because if I do, how does that help the ones coming up behind me?”

I’m not going to do this forever, says Henson, but for you coming up behind me, I just want you to have an easier road. Taraji P Henson was styled by Wayman Micah
“I’m not going to do this forever,” says Henson,
“but for you coming up behind me, I just want you to have an easier road.”
Taraji P. Henson was styled by Wayman + Micah. 

Keeping that in mind, Henson approached her audition with ferocity. “With [Bazawule’s] coaching, I swallowed my ego and went in. I had the perfect dress on,” says Henson, setting the scene. “It was very of the period. It was frilly and it moved a lot and had hardware on it, so it had a shine, it was very Shug Avery. I had this stole that I wore and put flowers in my hair and put my hair up with the red lips and everything. And I walked into the room and Blitz was like, ‘Oh shit!’ ”

By the time the audition was over, she wasn’t certain that she had the role, but she’d given it all she had. “I know whatever I did, I left it in that room. That’s all you can do at the end of the day. And then I got a weird call from Tyler Perry, ‘Are you answering your phone?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He’s like, ‘Oprah’s trying to call you.’ So I’m rehearsing how I’m going to say hello. Do I say ‘Miss Oprah’? Do I go ‘Oprah’? And then she calls and she’s like, ‘It was unanimous.’ ”

Winfrey stresses that her initial hesitation with Henson had nothing to do with her acting chops, but the demanding singing required: “I mean, I loved Taraji and watched her on Empire and all the things, but none of us knew Taraji could sing. And yes, she can.”

Despite the iconic IP having resonated in three mediums, and Winfrey, Spielberg and Jones being behind the project, to some involved, it still had to endure the struggles of other Black productions, from fighting for the cast Bazawule wanted, to pushing to get more resources. Barrino mentions that there was a feeling of the cast wanting to overdeliver in support of their Black director: “It’s an all-Black cast and it’s a movie that is really deep. So for Blitz, we all would go hard even when we were tired, when we were upset.”

Winfrey acknowledges the pressure to ensure a hit: “To be completely honest about it, if you were doing this film for $30 or $40 million, the interest in the cast would be very different. Once the film moved to $90 to $100 million, then everybody wants us to bring Beyoncé,” she says. “‘Can you get Beyoncé or can you get Rihanna?’ So we’re sitting in a room saying, ‘Listen, we love Beyoncé. We love Rihanna, but there are other actors who can do this job.’ I do remember conversations about, ‘Y’all, Beyoncé is going to be busy this year.’ It wasn’t even a negotiation, because you’re not getting Beyoncé.”

Winfrey’s name may seem synonymous with unlimited resources, but she notes there were times when the producing trio had to go to Warners Bros. to request more money to get everything right. “I would have to say that [Warner Bros. co-chairs] Pam [Abdy] and Mike De Luca really got it from the first time they saw the film, and understood that they heard me and heard Steven and heard the team when we said, ‘This is the reason why this has to be done,’ ” she says. “You have to give us more money to do this because this is a cultural manifesto in a way for our community, and it deserves to have the support that’s needed to make it what it needs to be.”

There was also an understanding about who would be needed to helm the project. Even before Bazawule was in the running, they knew whoever was in charge of the film would have to be a person of color, the lack of which was problematic for the original. Winfrey recalls that the NAACP first demanded to see the script, and when refused, publicly came out against the film over concerns of negative depictions of Black men, with significant upset over Spielberg being the one bringing the messaging to the world. “At the time, I was just mad at the NAACP, ‘How dare you all try to spoil this moment for all of us who’ve worked so hard, especially Alice Walker,’ ” says Winfrey. “Our response was, ‘This is one story. It’s not the story of every Black man.’ I was upset that they were doing it, but I would not let it affect any of my joy of the experience of being a part of it. There was nothing you could say to me about The Color Purple because [of what] all that experience meant. It was life-altering, -enhancing, -expanding.”

Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter and a producer on this film, was a 15-year-old gofer on the first, and recalls the vitriol that came before and after the original’s release, leading all the way to the movie’s 11 Oscar nominations — and its complete shutout in wins. “My mother really suffered,” says Walker. “She took all those criticisms very personally. She felt that she had done her best, not just by Celie and Shug, but by Mister and all the men in that book and all the men in her life.”


It has been real with each other, says Brooks about the bond among the castmembers. “We can have deep conversations about the hurt and pain we’ve been through in this industry.” Danielle Brooks was styled by Jennifer Austin.

Alice Walker recalls leaving for Bali to reset, and says she never regretted the choice of Spielberg as director. “It just never occurred to me. It seems really absurd to [call someone] racist when someone says, ‘Oh, I’d love this and I will do everything I can to make it something you love, too.’ ”

Had it not been for Spielberg, Winfrey believes, the film would never have been made. She says Spielberg knew the optics around his helming the feature. “He took the heat for that, and it was scary for him. He said, when Quincy asked him to do it, ‘It should be a person of color.’ And Quincy said, ‘I’m here and it’s going to be you,’ ” Winfrey recalls. “I still think it is classic and extraordinary in terms of what Steven was able to do with that piece of work.”

When he took on The Color Purple, Spielberg was already an acclaimed blockbuster director. When Bazawule (also a musician who goes by the name Blitz the Ambassador) set out to direct the remake, he had directed only one feature, but Winfrey and Sanders were quickly convinced that the 40-year-old Ghanaian was the only choice at the helm. Sanders was worried that his lack of experience might impede a green light from Warner Bros. “These companies are mammoth and profit-driven and very often accused of not being friends of the creative process,” the producer says. “The final pitch, the final interview for Blitz to get approved and hired, we had a Zoom, and it was Blitz, Oprah, [former Warner Bros. execs] Toby Emmerich, Courtenay Valenti and me. Toby Emmerich did something that was so remarkable, gracious and atypical for what most people think about Hollywood executives. He looked at Blitz at the very top of the Zoom and said, ‘I know you think this is your final hurdle to get this job. But if Oprah and Steven and Scott and Quincy think you’re the director, then you’re the director. You’ve got the job. Just tell me the movie you want to make.’ ”

Working with a screenplay by Gardley, Bazawule made the movie his own by infusing it with “magical realism,” as Winfrey describes it. Going inside Celie’s imagination includes dreamy moments with Shug (whose romantic relationship is more fleshed out than the chaste kiss in the original), and song-and-dance numbers in which Celie allows herself to dream of a place away from the brutal world that Mister has created for her.

Then there’s the evolution of Mister, played by Domingo. In the original, with his villainous ways so expertly depicted by Danny Glover, the character’s redemption doesn’t come until near the end of the movie, as an old man finally having regrets about his conduct toward Celie. Like in the book and the musical version, this new Color Purple invests much more in his redemption arc — a change Alice Walker appreciates deeply, and something that Bazawule and Gardley added to the film. “I think it just felt really good to have a Black man directing — not just because he’s a Black man, but because he’s hugely talented — and also a Black young man to do the screenplay,” says Walker, “because I want people to see that we’re all trying to evolve in our relationships with each other. I hope that this evolution and this sense is helpful to people.”

Blitz Bazawule directs Henson and Barrino on set. Says Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the original novel, “I think it just felt really good to have a Black man directing — not just because he’s a Black man but because he’s hugely talented.”
Blitz Bazawule directs Henson and Barrino on set. Says Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the original novel, “I think it just felt really good to have a Black man directing — not just because he’s a Black man but because he’s hugely talented.” COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.


There were other changes made to the new version. The violence against Celie is more inferred than shown, and the famous line Shug says to Celie when they first meet, “You sho’ is ugly!” is never uttered. “It didn’t work in mine because the levels and the investment in the narrative around sisterhood — there’s certain things you can’t come back from. Celie and Shug Avery’s relationship could not recover from that,” says Bazawule. “Within the vessel of The Color Purple lies an infinite world. And our job is to figure out what to harness for this audience. We were unafraid to go, ‘OK that’s not making it,’ and to also go, ‘That’s needed, but it’s not in here, we need to add that.’ My hope and prayer is that it is of deep benefit to the audience today, that they can see a reflection of themselves.”

Walker also hopes it will be the healing that she set out for the book to be when she first conceived it. “You know, you take it and then you take it like a medicine. And it doesn’t kill you. It might possibly help you grow and turn into something magical.”

In spite of all the protests that enveloped the movie decades ago, it has now become a part of American culture, particularly Black culture: The meme-fication of key moments are a measure of that; one little girl who went viral on a recent TikTok, in which she played all the roles from a scene, won Winfrey’s heart (and an invitation to the recent premiere).

If recent screenings are any indication, anticipation for the remake is palpable. Still, Winfrey is aware that the film’s success will be measured for future projects with a predominantly Black cast. It’s why she’s promoting the film so hard, and why her red carpet wardrobe has been transformed by the color purple at just about every public appearance. (This interview had Winfrey wearing the rare creamy silky suit, but later that night, as she was honored by the Academy Museum, she was all decked out in a purple glittery dress.) “Unfortunately, we’re still there. That’s why I’m literally on the streets handing out tickets, OK?” she says. “We are still in a place where the whole world doesn’t understand that we are such a vital part of the world, and that our stories deserve the highest of priorities — that this is how you help to make people throughout the world connect and relate to our culture. So yeah, it’s really important that this do well.”

This story appears in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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