Blitz Bazawule And Oprah Winfrey Talk About The New Musical Film Adaptation of ‘The Color Purple’ – Q&A
Directed by Blitz Bazawule (Black is King) and produced by Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders and Quincy Jones, audiences will be dazzled by a new rendition of The Color Purple.
With a star-studded cast that includes Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Bailey, H.E.R., Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, and more, the musical film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel of the same name will be released in theatres this holiday season.
In anticipation of the film, Warner Bros. held a trailer release event where they screened the trailer to the press prior to its release online, followed by a Q&A with Bazawule and Winfrey. The dynamic duo spoke about everything related to the upcoming film, including the cast, the importance of re-telling this story now, and what they hope audiences will take away from the film.
Check out the full Q&A with Blitz Bazawule and Oprah Winfrey about The Color Purple below:
The Color Purple is clearly a property that is near and dear to your heart. Can you talk about why it was important to continue to tell the story in this way? And why now?
Oprah Winfrey: Well, first of all, just let me say thank you so much, Kelly; I am here as producer representation for the other producers, Scott Sanders, for whom this idea originated. Somehow he believed that you could make a musical out of The Color Purple back in 2005, and reiterated again in 2015. And then thought that we could take it to film. So I’m here representing Scott and representing Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones as my fellow producers, and I can’t tell you what a full circle moment this is. I mean, you saw me dancing as I was watching the trailer. Because I remember saying to Steven, while we were filming it in 1985, I went to him and said, ‘You know, people are saying that I’m going to be famous. So you might want to put my name on the trailer on the poster.’ And he said, ‘Your name can’t go on the poster because your lawyer already worked that out and you’re favourite nations, and so your name doesn’t go on the poster.’
And so, it’s just such a joy now to see my name wasn’t on the poster, but it is all makes regular. Or the reimagined, bold new take on The Color Purple almost 40 years later. There is a God, okay? So the reason this moment is so important is because for as long as there is a need for self-discovery, self-empowerment, as long as there is a need for victory in someone’s life, as long as there is a need for people to know what it feels like to be loved up and to be made full and hold through somebody else’s love. There will be no need for the colour purple. And so we have our iteration now coming out on December 25. And I believe that in the future, this story just grows, and it never grows old.
Why is it that you think that’s true? I mean, this story not only still resonates almost 40 years later, but it’s a story that we revisit, quote, and talk about – it’s a part of our daily lives as if it just came out yesterday. Why do you think that is?
Winfrey: I think it’s because, if I may share with you all, I’m doing a behind-the-scenes documentary for HBO. And I just recently was interviewing some of the cast members. I’ve been filming all along as Blitz was directing down in Savannah and Atlanta, but I just sat one-on-one with each of the actresses, and Fantasia so deeply moved me. She said this movie changed her because it allowed her to forgive. And she told me backstage, ‘People coming to this movie will be healed.’ So I said, ‘Why do you say that Fantasia?’ And she said, ‘Because I was healed. I was healed.’ And I said, ‘Do you mind sharing with us why you think you were Celie?’ And she said, ‘I came from no education. I came from sexual assault as a young girl. I came from domestic abuse. And I learned through this movie that not only could I heal, but I could forgive.’
And so I think the power that comes through Fantasia, that comes through Danielle, that comes through Colman Domingo, that comes through Taraji, the power and energy, and force of knowing that you represent us– representing a story that is at the heart of the need for victory in someone’s life. Yeah, it’s at the heart of the need of discovering who you are and recognizing that no matter what you’ve been through, you are still here. So when she sings that anthem, “I Am Here,” she is speaking to everybody who’s been told no, everybody who’s been turned down, everybody who’s been turned back, everybody who’s been allowed to believe that they couldn’t make it, and then they did. And they’re still here.
A revival is a revival for joy. It is a revival for hope and his revival for forgiveness. And so, the fact that Scott Sanders could see that and make it a musical…because when he first approached me about a musical in 2005, I go, ‘So what’s Celie gonna be doing? Dancing around the table with Mr.? I don’t know how that’s gonna happen.’ And he found he found a way to make it happen. And now, Blitz has found a way–I could just cry thinking about what Blitz has done with this new iteration because it is a classic; it is iconic. And to be able to step into that with the boldest vision that Blitz had for this film and create this magically realized version, where we actually go inside Celie’s head, is pretty incredible.
I was gonna say, let’s go ahead and make Blitz blush a little bit. Why was he the right director for this project, and how did you find him?
Winfrey: Well, I think by the time we saw Blitz, he was like the fifth or sixth director that we had spoken to. And we were you getting toward the end of interviewing people, and you’re trying to think, ‘Well, let’s go back to the first guy. Maybe he wasn’t so bad; maybe she wasn’t.’ And Blitz presented these storyboards, and within five minutes of zooming with him, I was texting to Scott Sanders and everybody else on the call, ‘This is the guy.’ This is the guy because he just came in there knowing the stuff. It’s like he lived it. Blitz came in there all prayed up. He was like, I’m getting this thing today. Today, they’re not gonna wait, no, two weeks, two months and tell me.
I love that. Well, Blitz, talk to me about being the guy. What was it like getting that phone call? And how did this project actually come to you in the first place?
Blitz Bazawule: Well, I mean, first of all, thank you, for it’s such an honour. I mean, are you kidding me? You know, you dream of things like this and And then they happen. I remember getting a phone call from my agent, saying, ‘You know, they’re remaking The Color Purple.’ The obvious instinct is to go, ‘Oh, that can’t be me!’ You know what I mean? It’s so legendary. Starting with, of course, Alice Walker’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning book, to Steven Spielberg’s classic, to a Tony Award-winning Broadway show. I mean, the bar is so high. But I remember when I first read the script, and I was like, ‘Oh, I see what Mark is trying to do here.’ Then, of course, I sat with Steven, Oprah, Scott Sanders and the Warner Bros. team, and it was clear that they were going to allow us to really expand the canon of The Color Purple – which first began with how do we create an internal headspace for Celie? Because if we know anything about trauma, then we know that people work through trauma from an internal place.
Obviously, there’s no such thing as an equal playing field between the abused and the abuser. So you have to go into the headspace of the abuse to be able to elevate her right, and so that was the first thing for me. But I also knew that I wanted to create some of the most epic, boldest visual motifs. And you can’t just do that if you’re just, you know, shooting. We had to expand it in some–we’ll call it magical realist–that was kind of what we leaned into to give Celie an internal headspace, which then will allow us to create this. But I think it was also the opportunity for joy. You know, I feel like often when we think about specifically African American life, there’s a tendency to kind of narrow it down to the struggles, but nobody gets here without the duality of joy and pain. And for me, I knew that it was going to be a triumphant journey right through struggle. So once we arrived at that point, then it became about how do you make it a musical, and I’ve been a musician for over 10 years. I’ve taught globally, and I knew very quickly that music creates a level of empathy and a directness that we can lock into. Beyond that, African American music has always set the pace for music globally. So I knew that all I had to do was lean on that and create some level of parallel between the music and the character.
So we went back. We looked at gospel music as Genesis, which evolved into blues, which evolved into jazz. And we knew that as Celie continued to evolve, the music would continue to evolve. That’s kind of how we arrived here. We had a brilliant cast. I mean, we can go on for days from Fantasia Barrino to Taraji P. Henson to Danielle Brooks, too, of course, the brilliant Coleman Domingo to the amazing Corey Hawkins. Of course, Halle Bailey will be introducing some really fresh new voices like Phylicia Pearl Mpasi. Musically, too, we knew that we needed to reach the icons of music, right? So we leaned into gospel – Ricky Dillard, Tamela Mann, the amazing Tamela Mann, who opens our movie with mysterious ways. We leaned into Keb’ Mo’, who was our bluesman, who helped us arrange and bring blues to life. Christian McBride, who helped us kind of evolve jazz into what it is. And I think when you put it all together, you have a tapestry that is beautiful. It’s joyous. And as Oprah said, it’s healing.
Yeah, I loved hearing you talk about how you even put together your vision for creating this. Was there any trepidation on your part? I mean, obviously, I know when you first got that phone call from your agent about approaching this, especially once you did that first table read or once you got on set because, as Miss Oprah has said before, this is not your mama’s The Color Purple, but she’s gonna love it.
Bazawule: That’s it. I mean, how do you create something that is new but honours the source? That was the job, right? And again, we know that this version of The Color Purple is for a new generation. As Oprah said, the context of The Color Purple itself is evergreen. As long as there continue to be issues of gender bias, issues of domestic abuse, issues of racial inequality and penal systems that are biased – all these things are central to what The Color Purple is, and if you look out your window, it’s happening today. And that’s how I knew for sure that I’ll be able to lean into what was new about it, but also know that it already comes with an inbuilt history that Alice, of course, bequeathed to all of us and has continued to do that.
And when you get to the end, there is a cathartic release. I mean, our story goes over a 40-year traverse, which is truly an epic, and it’s a truly American story. And it’s not just American. It’s also the Americas and the diasporic; Nettie going to Africa. That was one of my ways, and as well as someone who was born in Ghana, I knew immediately that the African side of the narrative could be used to access and amplify what Celie was missing in her system.
You know, Miss Oprah, I’d love to kick it back to you. This film is truly a celebration of sisterhood and of finding your voice at the heart of the story. There are these three women shown at different times throughout their lives over the course of 40 years, who become bonded and become each other’s lifelines. Can you talk about what Celie, Shug and Sofia mean to each other and why those connections are so critical?
Winfrey: Well, I think this is a film that is about sisterhood and enhances any sisterhood that you might have. You know, with people in your family or your chosen sisters outside of your family, you know? Shug shows Celie the truth about herself. She mirrors back to Celie who she really is. So Celie is looking at Shug, and she sees someone beautiful and sees this life that, you know, is unimaginable to her, but literally and physically, Shug holds up a mirror to her to see her own reflection. And Sofia is like this bastion of strength and power. And from the beginning, that very famous line, when she walks through and says, ‘You tell Harpo to beat me,’ she is defiant and willing to stand in her own truth and not going to be pushed around by anybody.
I think one of the great songs of this particular version of The Color Purple is “Hell No.” It’s going to become an anthem for a lot of women, and Danielle just knocks it out of the park. And so for Miss Celie, Sofia is like, how do you get some of that? How do you get some of that energy? And I think what they do for each other is intertwined in the relationships that we all have with our friends. You don’t get everything from one person, but we’re all kind of taking and sharing and offering to each other in a way that emboldened us and makes us all better. So what each of us has to give makes each other better. And that’s what we see in this story of The Color Purple.
Absolutely. You know, Blitz, but really this question is for both of you guys. Honestly, I gasped every time a new casting was announced. This is truly a dream ensemble. I would love to hear you guys talk about the incredible cast and how this elevates an already ageless project because it did.
Bazawule: I mean, you know, for me, every time I I was on set, I was like the spoilt director, literally. The amount of talent, ability, and brilliance was through the roof. And what we had was also kind of a difference in levels of experience, right? You had a Colman who’s been doing this; a Taraji has been doing this. But then you also have people who had never done it. A Fantasia who had never done it, a Phylicia, and even Danielle, who was coming from TV, but had never been in a major motion picture. What I loved was seeing the level of camaraderie and love and helping each other over time. And it started right from when the cast was announced. I mean, there were true sisterhoods that were being formed, true brotherhoods.
And in all honesty, now I think back, I realized that most of our rehearsals were really just therapy sessions. We talked more than we did anything. We talked about our families; we talked about people who were reminiscent of some of these characters. And that, for me, was the beautiful tapestry. It’s very rare that you get an ensemble that has truly tapped into one another from an emotional place. And it just makes my job easy, because all I have to do is just play the conductor. And I don’t have to do much else.
Winfrey: You know, I would just like to add that spirit of sisterhood in that line and the trailer that you all just saw, where Shug Avery is showing Miss Celie how to put on lipstick and wear the clothes and stuff. And then she looks in the mirror and says, ‘Oh, living God,’ that is an ad-lib line that just comes out of that moment where you’re with your sister, and you’re like looking at her and lipstick for the first time. And you see how happy she is, and you’re happy for her. That’s what what what this film was all about. And that happened over and over and over and over again.
I think, you know, one of the things that was so moving to me is that from the very first day of shooting, you could feel, even from the crew. I mean, I had this guy come up to me saying, ‘You know, me and my wife and family, we’ve watched The Color Purple. I don’t know how many times and I watched it again just before coming here. And it’s just an honour to be a part of this project.’ So I think everybody, especially cast and crew, understood that we were taking on something that was immeasurable in terms of its soulful connection to the audience and that you are literally walking and working with material that is important to people that you know, The Color Purple is a huge part of our culture. And to this day, families still gather together and watch The Color Purple even though everybody could recite every line in it.
Every line, every line.
Winfrey: [laughs] Every line in it. So I think the energy is the kind of vibrational frequency that shows the kind of soulfulness and heart and devotion and commitment that shows up when you know you’re working on something this special. It comes through in the joy of the film; not saying that it was easy. I know Blitz is not saying how hard this was to do through COVID. I mean, at one point, we had to shut down for 10 days, and the dinner scene that you all are eventually going to see had to be shot on three different days with different people in different chairs. And I mean, really difficult because of all of the problems associated with COVID. But people just kept going; we just kept going because we knew that we had something that was meaningful, important, and a valuable offering. So I see this film as an offering. I hope it will be as well-received, as we certainly intend for it to be as well-intended as it was from our hearts to do something that would really matter in people’s lives. So for me, obviously, it’s more than a film because I’ve been dealing with this now for almost 40 years. Yeah. But to see it projected in this way is, is one of the culminating moments of my life.
Let’s talk about music because it’s such an integral part of the story. And obviously, you have this really beautiful, robust background as a musician. Can you talk a little bit about how these songs enhance the audience’s connection to your characters? Because it really does make them a little bit more three-dimensional.
Bazawule: 100 percent. I mean, we were fortunate enough to inherit brilliant music from the Broadway show. But then when you get that music, you go, ‘Okay, how do I turn this music cinematic?’ And that’s kind of the difference. And I think overall; it was really about making it real. As I said earlier, it was also about tracking the overall arc of African American music and going if this is gospel, and this is blues, and if this is jazz, then my job is not to synthesize each song through the acts of our movie. So you know, Sofia’s coming in the bluesy era, right? So you’re gonna get blues. Shug’s coming in in the jazz era. So now the songs can be interpreted through that.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out Fatima Robinson, a brilliant choreographer. Fatima and I would talk all the time about sonically, what the music meant to the narrative, and the movement of the narrative. And we really quickly surmised that it’s best to really think about this as a fluid continuum, not just your big dance numbers. And then when you get to dialogue, the camera just sitting, we decided to choreograph every bit of it. So the camera’s fluid, and shout out to Dan Laustsen, our brilliant, brilliant DP, who created these beautiful tableaus. And a camera was constantly moving, but it starts with rhythm and it starts with the cadence. If the music is doing that work, then Fatima can choreograph, then Dan can shoot, then we end up with it a beautiful movie. So that’s kind of what the journey was, overall.
Winfrey: As the music is necessary. I mean, the music comes out of a real space. That’s what Marcus Gardley, our writer, was saying. It’s not just singing because now it’s, let’s put a song in here. You know, we’ve all been to those musicals where it’s a competitive class, it’s a quest to destroy, you know? And you’re just like, ‘Oh, Lord, another song.’ No, this music comes up out of the soul of the narrative. And when the people are singing, they’re singing because there ain’t nothing else to do to express the moment but sing. And the dancing comes out of the same kind of element that we got to just move. So I think people will appreciate it. Even people who think, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I like musicals’, because the music is relevant to the moment in the story. It’s not just there to be music.
I love that. What do you want the audiences to take away from this film? And I asked that under the guise that I feel like really seeing this film on Christmas Day has some intentionality behind it. So I would love to hear from each of you what your hopes are.
Winfrey: Mine is joy. I mean, you get to sit in your seat, you’re gonna cry at the end, and you’re going to be emotional because you already know what the ending is. And we didn’t change the ending. So that’s going to be emotional. But you’re going to be filled with so much love. I mean, I just want to reiterate something that Fantasia said to me. When I asked her where are you going to be on Christmas day, she said she was going to be in that theatre. And she said she was going to be sitting there with her family members, and sitting there with all her family members, including the ones she had forgiven. And when I heard that, I thought, well, you know, what I might call my family members. I think that this is a family film. I think that this is a sisterhood film. I think this is an individual film for anybody who wants to feel a sense of hope or hopefulness in these times, a sense of triumph for themselves, and joy!
Bazawule: Oprah said it all! I’m just gonna say the communal feeling of watching this movie in a group. And we’ve had the privilege to preview a few times and to see those collective gasps, those collective laughs, those collective tissues. So it’s something that I’ve I’ve begun to appreciate, just generally, what it feels like to view this communally in a group. And I think that’s what also makes it special for the movie theatres on Christmas Day. It’s going to resonate with families.
I love that. The Color Purple has a lot of history, and what stars like Halle Bailey and H.E.R. What do you think makes this film relevant and for younger audiences today?
Bazawule: I mean, it is the connection again of this evergreen idea and reality of this black woman’s life and the lives around her. I think that what’s special about having Halle, H.E.R., and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi is that, of course, all their families revere The Color Purple; they’ve seen it in. You know, that was one of the first conversations we had in casting was how many times has your family seen The Color Purple, you know, and then everybody would go, ‘Oh, man, we can all quote it.’ So they all knew the responsibility. That was my main thing. I said, ‘We’re going to go to the edge. And I need you to come with me. And what we’re not going to do is mimic. They’ve done their version of The Color Purple, and if you want to justify your reason for being, you have to take it and make it yours.’ And that was the constant conversation. And it was that, and it was beautiful to see the younger, you know, actors and actresses build into their own confidence to say, we’re only worth contributing to the cannon if we make it ours. And that was the job.
Winfrey: It was one of the reasons I made sure I was on set the day that Danielle Brooks was doing the ‘You told Harpo to beat me’ line.
[laughs] No pressure on Danielle!
Winfrey: [laughs] I wanted her to know that I was officially passing the baton to you. Make it your own, do it your way because this is the new dawning. And we both hugged and shed tears afterwards. It was a really emotional moment. I will say this, that first day on set, seeing Danielle walk across the field as Sofia just the very first day – and you know, she wasn’t even doing a big scene. I got emotional seeing her in costume because it was a triggering moment for me of that whole time, and everything that The Color Purple was beginning changed the trajectory of my life and was the beginning of the ascension of everything that happened in my life. So yeah, it was emotional.
This last question is for both of you. They would love to hear you talk about the casting process and how you decided on some of the castings because both Fantasia and Danielle were in the Broadway production; what made them perfect choices for the film itself?
Bazawule: I mean, I could start by saying that I cast with my heart. You know, people come with incredibly impressive CVs; they’ve done it all. They are the big name. They’re the ones that you’re told to cast. And I believe deeply in people with an endless wealth of lived experience who can relate naturally to what you’re asking them to do. I understand the job that it is when I asked Fantasia to say it one more time; I know that she has to go there. And I know that’s the only way that we can create something special and beautiful. And so, that was how I went into every casting process. Starting, of course, with Fantasia, our lead, I needed someone with an endless well, somebody who could emote, someone who could reach in, and I knew I’d be asking of her several times. Danielle was the same, and so is Coleman and Corey in the group. But the other thing that was very important for us in this process was always asking the cast or really asking ourselves, where in the narrative are we, and who’s the right person to take over? So thinking about young Celie and oldest Celie, of course, we know we’ll never get a perfect match, but their spirits had the match. That was another way in which we cast.
What about yourself? Anything to add?
Winfrey: All these names are now a part of our beautiful repertoire of actors. And, you know, having sat and spent time with Fantasia, I am even more deeply moved by her because, at the time that we cast her, I didn’t know that she was Celie, that Celie’s story was really a replica of much of what she’s already experienced. And as we were just talking the other day, pretty traumatizing, actually pretty triggering, to have to step into that and live and relive some of those feelings and any emotions and actions again. And so the fact that she brought her whole self to that is pretty remarkable, and it shows up on the screen. And I’m just so grateful to her and all of our cast, of course, but I realized how hard that was to do.
You know, to tell you all the story, I remember hearing this from Quincy Jones years ago that they had originally gone to Tina Turner in 1985 to ask Tina Turner to play Shug Avery. And Tina Turner turned down the role of Shug Avery because she said she already lived it with Ike, and she was not going to put herself through it again. And so to see that Fantasia actually had, in this particular time in her life, enough of what it takes to get through that and was willing to put herself through that, to relive the experience, is really pretty amazing. And I know everybody uses the word amazing, but I think it’s amazing. It’s amazing grace that she did it, came through it and came out on the other side of it with a sense of forgiveness and hope for herself and her family.
Absolutely. On Christmas Day! Blitz, you are brilliant. Miss Oprah, what I can tell you that you don’t already know about yourself? But thank you so much for your hand in creating what I know is a beautiful piece of work.