When it comes to films with a story, The color purple — about Celie, an abused black teenager in the early 20th century — is as celebrated as it sounds. Based on Alice Walker’s seminal 1982 Pulitzer-winning book, it was a 1985 Steven Spielberg film, a mid-2000s Broadway musical, and a Tony-winning revival play.
So when Blitz Bazawule got a call asking him to direct a musical film for 2023, his first question was: “Why?”
“It’s been done and done and done, so what can you do with it?” he said at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles event on Saturday at the DGA Theatre. “It’s sacred work and sacred ground. The color purple It’s a critical and important text for so many people who are healing, so if you don’t have anything to say, you better shut up.”
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Bazawule, Golden Globe nominee for his 2018 micro-budget hit Kojo’s Burial, turned to Walker’s book for inspiration. When he read Celie’s first line, which begins with “Dear God”, he realized how the musical adaptation could say something new.
“Anyone who is writing letters to God has an imagination, period,” he said. “It also made clear to me that we often miscategorize people who have experienced abuse and trauma as deeply docile and waiting to be saved. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone who has experienced trauma and abuse is constantly trying to mentally shake it off. We just don’t access their free space.”
Taking hope, inspiration and context from Celie’s head would be the starting point that would differentiate the new film from everything that came before.
It also provided the creative spark for Fantasia Barrino, who played Celie on Broadway in 2007-08 – a time when she was sorting out her own personal issues.
Producer Scott Sanders called to ask her to take on the role, but she was reticent after her experience playing the role on stage. It was only when Bazawule told her about his vision that she understood. “He was giving Celie imagination and I said, ‘I’m in.’ We all get through things in our own way.”
Barrino stars alongside the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins and Colman Domingo. Henson and Brooks appeared alongside Barrino and Bazawule at our event on Saturday.
Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who had a small role in the 1985 film alongside the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover, are producing the film with Sanders and Quincy Jones. Warner Bros., the film’s producer, is returning to release the pic on Christmas Day.
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