“Music and magical realism helped to heighten the world of the story, and allowed us to get inside of Celie’s mind,” says poet, playwright, screenwriter Marcus Gardley of the reimagining of The Color Purple. “For me, the story came alive in a new way when I realized that Celie’s imagination was the heartbeat of the film.”
“To date, The Color Purple is still my favorite novel of all time. I remember reading it when I was a teenager.,” says Gardley, whose adaptation is based on the novel by Alice Walker and based on the musical stage play, book (of the musical stage play) by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
‘I’m ashamed to say I snuck it out of a library and read it in one sitting! The minute I opened to page one, I was instantly captivated because the first two words in the book are ‘Dear God,’ and I couldn’t tell if that meant that the protagonist was writing to God or God was so close to her that God was dear, or that I, in fact, by virtue of reading the book, was God. No novel since then has been equally compelling, nor does it change you as much every time you read it.”
“Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Color Purple’ is one of the cornerstones of culture, certainly Black culture, and the ability of Steven to take what was in the text and turn it into a major motion picture that was celebrated?” says director Blitz Bazawule.
“I mean, the book already was a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, so he had his job cut out for him, and I think the fact that those lines are still quoted and are still part of the canon of culture tells you how important that is.
“So now, for this film, between myself, our writer Marcus Gardley, and many others on screen and behind the scenes,” Bazawule continues, “there’s a broad spectrum of Black culture, folk culture and Black music, a sense of spirituality and faith—all important elements that we infused this film with and that we celebrate in this film. And thanks to the stage musical, we also found a way to give Celie’s inner world its own voice visually, so there’s a sense of magical realism, too, that puts us all a little deeper inside Celie’s evolution.”
Torn apart from her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) and her children, Celie (Fantasia Barrino in her major motion picture debut, reprising her 2005 role from Broadway) faces many hardships in her life, including an abusive husband simply called Mister (Colman Domingo). With the support of sultry singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) and stand-her-ground stepdaughter Sofia (Danielle Brooks, Tony-nominated for the role on Broadway), Celie ultimately finds extraordinary strength in the unbreakable bonds of a new kind of sisterhood.
Alice Walker’s book to be told in a bold new way.
A global phenomenon upon its publication, The Color Purple went on to sell millions of copies and inspire multiple generations of readers.
Published in 1982, Alice Walker’s book, drawn from her own life, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award for Fiction.
In 1985, Steven Spielberg brought it to the silver screen with a powerful adaptation. Alice Walker was initially reluctant to sell the film rights to her novel, due to Hollywood’s portrayal of female and African-American characters. She only agreed to the offer after consulting with friends, who agreed the only way to improve representation of minorities was to work within the system. Walker wrote an initial screenplay draft, but was replaced by Dutch-born writer Menno Meyjes, under the proviso that she be given final script approval.
In 2005, the musical opened on Broadway; with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, and a book by Marsha Norman, based on Alice Walker’s novel and Spielberg’s film. it would go on to garner Tony and Grammy Awards and spawn multiple national tours, productions all over the world and a 2015 revival.
That beloved musical is now reinvented for the screen with Spielberg, Winfrey and Quincy Jones, all key to the 1985 film, serving as producers alongside Scott Sanders, who originally conceived of the stage version, the third time Winfrey fell in love with an experience of “The Color Purple.”
Winfrey firmly believes that “this story endures because for every woman and man who has suffered, who has been invisible, who has felt unseen and unvalued, this is their story of coming into yourself, coming into your own, having that glorious self-discovery reflected to you through the image of someone else. For Celie, that was Shug Avery, who showed her there’s another way. There’s another way. And so as we release it into the world again, it will continue to endure, because generations old and new will come see and feel the same thing.”
“I felt the 1985 film was so significant, certainly so significant in my life, that it withstands the test of time. If you look at it now, it still holds up as a film. So, it was decided that I would go to Steven Spielberg and ask for permission to do this on film again.”
Spielberg was open to the idea, Winfrey recalls. “He realized that at this time in our culture, with the MeToo movement representing a pinnacle moment for women speaking up and speaking out, it was time. And so, from the moment I called Scott and said, ‘Steven says yes, it’s a go,’ I’ve been with this team.”
The producing team wouldn’t have been complete without the legendary Quincy Jones, who had begun his journey with “The Color Purple” on Spielberg’s film as both producer and composer, and also produced the stage show.
“Simply put, Alice penned a brilliant and real novel. She carefully painted the lives of the characters in such a beautiful way that it was something I simply couldn’t turn away from,” recalls Jones. “That is why it resonated—and still resonates—with people, from the page to the big screen to the stage.”
And now to the screen again because, as Jones adds, “It is an American story about the African American experience of the time. It’s heavy, but it matters because it forces you to face it head on. It is our truth, and that truth needs to be passed down. You can’t turn away from powerful content like that.”
“There is Purple magic all around this story, there’s ancestral magic all around this story,” says Scott Sanders, who originally conceived of the stage version “This has been a long journey of miracles that have come in my 25 years of working with this story.”
Sanders’ impetus for shepherding “The Color Purple” through yet another iteration was simple: Celie. He offers, “I remember when I read Alice’s novel years ago, and I found myself so moved by Celie’s journey in particular. I found this protagonist one of the most remarkable women/people that I had ever read about, fiction or otherwise. And I found this classic triumph-over-adversity story in many ways moving, inspiring, sad, joyful…all of the above. But I found Celie’s ability to put one foot in front of the other day after day after day and move forward, notwithstanding her obstacles and the things that were challenging her in her life, and not only to be loving to other people—Sofia, Shug, Harpo—but also then towards the end of the story to find her own self-love and to feel like a fully realized person. That she can be independent, she can be whoever she wants to be, and that her trauma doesn’t necessarily have to affect her full life? I found that character just so moving and inspiring.”
For filmmakers, the impetus for creating this version of “The Color Purple” was to share the seminal story with readers who remain devoted to the novel and audiences who love the Spielberg film and/or the Broadway productions—and for anyone new to the material who has never experienced any of them. No matter your experience with Celie, Shug and Sofia, you will feel the emotion of their story, the bonds of their sisterhood and the joy of their discovery when Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple” hits the screen.
“As long as we have these issues, we will have room for stories like “The Color Purple,” says Walker. “The intention is for it to be a medicine book for people to use as a way to free yourself from whatever is harming and oppressing you.”
Bazawule hopes that, together with his stellar cast and crew, he has succeeded in reimagining the author’s beloved work. “Just because it’s a period film doesn’t mean it should feel removed from audiences today,” he says. “I hope people will go in and share the excitement we’ve put on the screen—the hope, the love, the faith—and enjoy the fantastic performances we were able to capture.”
From Page to Screen
Gardley was very familiar with the stage version. “I remember seeing the musical, both the first production and the remount, several times, and was over the moon about both,” he says. “I really wanted to draw from both the musical and the book, and one of my goals in writing the script was to explore the depth of the male characters more, and to experiment with the music in a way that would hopefully show how music is a part of the everyday lives of this community.”
The writer also wanted to infuse the script with the joy he felt as a reader and audience member. “It was my goal to bring more levity to the story, while not shying away from the more difficult moments.
“That script set the tone for this new imagining. A lot of the work was figuring out how we were going to make sure that we weren’t creating a carbon copy of any version that has existed, but give ours its own voice,” says hyphenate artist-turned-filmmaker Blitz Bazawule, who came to global attention for co-directing Beyoncé’s explosive visual album Black Is King, had read the book and seen the 1985 film when he was invited to meet with the producers in late 2020. There was just one element missing, says the director: “I hadn’t seen the play. But I’d heard great things about it.”
Walker also approved of the choice of Bazawule to direct the newest incarnation of her novel. “I feel his strength,” she says. “He’s a real artist.”
Bazawule’s interpretation of The Color Purple delivers Walker’s story with a huge depth of emotion and a reverence to all of her characters, and not just through the events of the story. By bringing in dialect coach Tangela Large, he ensured that the actors’ delivery of their lines reflected the way each character, from Celie to Sofia, to Mister and Shug, effectively “sounds” in the mind of a reader: of the era, of the place, of the time and of the community.
All of that authenticity, paired with not only songs from the Broadway musical, but with all-new original songs, resulted in a rousing theatrical experience that draws audiences even closer to the characters and allows them to share in the celebration emanating from the screen.
“Blitz was the ideal collaborator because of his strong visual sense and his strong sense of what moves audiences emotionally,” says Gardley. “He also has his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture and a passion for both African American culture and the story, and he uniquely understood that the music as a storytelling tool was vital to crafting this feature, but that it needed to be interwoven into the story without overwhelming it,” says Gardley.
Using a modern lens to breathe new life into a tale that takes place many years in the past, Bazawule wanted to simultaneously respect and reinvent The Color Purple, using dialogue, visuals, music and dance to expand one community’s story into an examination of the Black American experience.
“It’s really about finding what continues,” the director explains. “One thing that’s unique about African American culture specifically is the continuum. You can’t have blues without gospel. You can’t have jazz without blues. And you can’t have hip hop or R&B without what preceded that. So, we tried to find the threads, connect them, and see what has survived. And that’s what we would use as our proximate element; then we kept the rest authentic.”
On Broadway, “The Color Purple” characters were gifted the ability to express their emotions and thoughts through such songs as the poignant “Huckleberry Pie” and the showstopper “Hell No!” Blitz Bazawule’s reimagining commits these songs to film for the first time, along with a sprinkling of entirely new numbers to further bring the characters and their world to life, thanks also to renowned choreographer Fatima Robinson.
Along with several new songs from Bazawule, as well as stars Fantasia Barrino and Halle Bailey—Barrino performs the powerful “Superpower (I)” and Bailey wrote and sings on “Keep It Movin’”, respectively—fans of the stage musical will enjoy all their favorites, such as “What About Love,” performed as a duet by Shug Avery and Celie, as the pair sit in a theater balcony watching a black-and-white movie flicker across the screen. Celie imagines them as characters in the film, performing an elaborate musical number in stunning gowns, surrounded by a full orchestra, with moves designed by choreographer Fatima Robinson and her team, Adrian Wiltshire and Tia Rivera.
“Push Da Button” is racy and sensual and feels like Shug’s signature song, and “What About Love” evokes the love that Celie and Shug have been longing for, love they find in each other. And there’s the Oscar-nominated “Miss Celie’s Blues,” written for the 1985 film and a signature number Shug performs at Harpo’s juke joint.
Bazawule enlisted award-winning composer Kris Bowers to create the film score. “Blitz and I talked early on about being innovative musically while trying to find a way to have each of the themes and each new element be connected in even a small way to one of the songs,” he relates. “So, certain themes became either a really loose variation of, or took a sense of inspiration from, one of the songs, as a way to create an auditory continuity and a throughline. Similarly, in terms of that continuity, we also wanted to have each of those particular score moments occur in a way that drops us right before a song or picks up right after a song, so that there’s a seamless transition between the two.
“Then the score side of the instrumentation is obviously a bit different,” Bowers continues, “but that realism versus the imaginary world is something that came to play with the score where you have these intimate moments, with smaller instrumentation that represents Celie’s real, internal world. Then, when it becomes this imaginary space, it becomes really big, this heightened, emotional experience essentially.”
BLITZ BAZAWULE (Director)is an award-winning Ghanaian filmmaker, musician, author, and visual artist based in Atlanta. Prior to directing the reimagining of The Color Purple, Bazawule’s feature directorial debut, The Burial Of Kojo, premiered on Netflix in 2019 and was extremely well-received from critics and audiences alike. He also received a Grammy nomination on his work with Beyoncé on the visual album, Black Is King.
In addition to his experience as a filmmaker, Bazawule is also an accomplished musician and visual artist, having released four studio albums and has featured work at The Whitney Biennial exhibition. He is a Senior TED Fellow, recipient of the Vilcek Prize and the Guggenheim 2020 Fellowship. He is also the founder of the Africa Film Society, an organization focused on the preservation of classic African cinema.
Upcoming, Bazawule is set to write, direct and produce a six-episode limited series with FX based on his critically acclaimed debut novel, The Scent of Burnt Flowers. Emmy Award-winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is attached to executive produce and star in the series, which Bazawule is developing under his newly minted production company, Inward Gaze.
MARCUS GARDLEY (Screenwriter)is an acclaimed poet, playwright, screenwriter and television writer. Gardley won the 2022 WGA Award for Best Adapted Long-Form Series for his work on the Netflix series “Maid.” He has written for several other series including Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo” (Amazon), “The Chi” (Showtime), “Foundation” (Apple +), “NOS4A2” (AMC), “Tales of the City” and “Mindhunter” (both for Netflix). Gardley is currently in an overall deal at Amazon. His Marvin Gaye biopic was just picked up by Warner Bros., with Allen Hughes attached to direct.
In 2019 Gardley was named the Library Laureate of San Francisco by the city’s mayor and he was also the recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Award. That same year, Gardley was an Obie Award winner for his play “The House That Will Not Stand,” after being the 2015 Glickman Award winner and a finalist for both the 2015 and 2016 Kennedy Prize. Gardley’s other plays include “X or the Nation v Betty Shabazz,” “Black Odyssey,” “The Gospel of Loving Kindness,” “…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi,” “Every Tongue Confess” and “The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry.”
Gardley was born and raised in Oakland, California.