“The Color Purple” is a monumental, and monumentally successful, work that has taken many forms: Alice Walker’s original 1982 novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner; Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie, an Oscar nominee many times over that launched the screen career of Whoopi Goldberg and introduced Oprah Winfrey in her first movie role; and two Tony-winning Broadway musical productions, the box-office smash original in 2005 and the revival in 2015.
Now there is a film version of the musical, directed — as no other adaptation has been — by a Black filmmaker, Blitz Bazawule, from a script by a Black screenwriter, Marcus Gardley. And the 2023 movie, due Dec. 25, manages to bring something new to its sweeping story, adding elaborate fantasy sequences that redefine the characters and the feel. It’s now a period drama with a magical realist twist.
“It was very important that the grand multiverse that is ‘The Color Purple’ is represented in this film,” Bazawule said.
This multiverse encompasses the storied history of productions of “The Color Purple,” with celebrity producers from earlier iterations like Spielberg, Winfrey and Quincy Jones (who was responsible for the music in the original film), as well as Scott Sanders, who put the show on Broadway. And it builds on its past with performers including Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks, who reprise their Broadway roles. Rounding out the cast are Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo, Halle Bailey and a few surprise cameos.
The film’s biggest introduction just might be Bazawule, a 41-year-old Ghanaian filmmaker, visual artist, author and musician whose résumé ranges from his self-financed indie debut to Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King.”
“We were all blown away by Blitz and his vision,” Spielberg said in a statement made before the Hollywood strikes. He also admitted that, while he was thrilled with the stage musical, he initially wanted his take “to be the only film version of the story.”
Conversations with Winfrey and Sanders — who had been campaigning for the movie musical for a while — helped change his mind. “It’s a reimagining and so different than the movie that I had made,” he said. “It really does stand apart.”
“The Color Purple” starts in rural Georgia in the early 1900s and winds through the life and family of Celie (Barrino), an impoverished Black woman who suffers tremendous abuse at the hands of nearly every man in her life — most notably Mister, her husband (Domingo) — and a socioeconomic system built to grind her down. Her evolution toward independence in the mid-20th century mirrors the hard-won march toward liberty of women, queer people and colonized nations, all of which figure into the story.
The fantasy sequences put the audience in Celie’s imagination. It’s a counterweight, Bazawule said, to the notion that abused people are docile.
“I find that to be completely wrong,” he said in a video interview last week from Burbank, Calif., where he was finishing the film. “The abused are constantly working their way out of it. And if we were just in their heads, we will know that they are not just sitting and waiting for a savior. Celie was actively saving herself.”
Those sequences, written into the screenplay and envisioned by Bazawule as glorious song-and-dance numbers, gave Celie more agency. “In previous iterations, quite frankly including the stage musical, she’s a passive protagonist for a good part of the storytelling,” said Sanders. Now, audiences can see “what her inner voice was telling her, as she was moving through her self-discovery and triumph over adversity.”
Barrino, the “American Idol” alumna, played Celie in the first Broadway production and on tour, and needed to be convinced to revisit the role. “She was very, very hesitant to do it,” Bazawule said, “because it’s heavy work — it weighs down on the artists. And she was dealing with her own personal healing.”
He won her over by showing her a rough clip of a dream sequence between Celie and Shug Avery, the sultry chanteuse played by Henson; it promised character development on a big scale. “I said, ‘We’re going to go there — you know, we’ll have a 50-piece orchestra. It’s going to be wild,’” Bazawule said. (Barrino and the rest of the cast were unavailable for interviews because of the actors’ strike.)
Bazawule’s first hire was actually the choreographer Fatima Robinson, a veteran who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Mary J. Blige, and who choreographed the 2006 movie musical “Dreamgirls.” Bazawule recalled watching her videos for Aaliyah, his friends stopping the tape over and over to copy the moves, when he was a teenager in Accra. “She’s always had such a regal reverence and a curiosity about dance from all over the world,” he said.
Her hip-hop and R&B pedigree is evident in neck swivels and shoulder shimmies that connect TikTok dances to their 20th-century lineage. Some of the songs were sped up to match her moves, Sanders said. Bazawule also had her choreograph narrative scenes and help with the way the camera moves around the actors. “It’s always in a ballet with the narrative,” he said.
Bazawule is a multihyphenate who started as a painter, then became a hip-hop performer; he records as Blitz the Ambassador. (His given name is Samuel; his stage name, he said, had a lot to do with his production style: “very fast and very glitzy.”) But even he had trouble with the basic structure of a movie musical, incorporating songs into the action. “The biggest challenge was to figure out, how do you take this very sprawling music and turn it cinematic?” he said.
He separated the score into its three root genres — gospel, blues and jazz. And he brought in new arrangers for each: Ricky Dillard, Keb’ Mo’ and Christian McBride. (The original Broadway numbers are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, pop and R&B songwriters.) He also wrote songs for the movie, including a beat-driven work anthem for Harpo, Mister’s son (Corey Hawkins). “The goal was to make sure that the music was always talking to each other,” he said, and to have it be in tune with a contemporary soundtrack.
His ambitions were evident from his first pitch to the producers, when he showed them a full storyboard he had pencil-drawn himself. During Bazawule’s presentation — via video during the height of covid — “I literally texted Oprah,” Sanders recalled. “I went, ‘Oh, my God, this is the guy.’ And she wrote back, ‘Yes, he is!’”
“It was a slam-dunk 100 percent” Oprah said in a video interview recorded before the strike and shown at Essence Fest. “I loved being on set to witness how he brought this new vision to the screen.”
For all its popularity, “The Color Purple” is not without its critics, especially when it comes to its depiction of gender dynamics. Some view it “as anti-Black male,” Bazawule said. “We were very conscious of that.” The filmmakers aimed to depict a masculine “evolution,” from the entrenched sexist beliefs of Mister’s father (Louis Gossett Jr.) to Mister, capable of redemption, to his son Harpo, loyal to the feisty and feminist Sofia (Brooks) — a male character Bazawule called “aspirational.”
Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation was also dinged for downplaying a lesbian story line, which is more foregrounded in this version. “Times have changed in the way we relate to sexual orientation, to race, to abuse — you can show and talk about certain things that may have been challenging back then,” Bazawule said. “Our job was just to make sure that we’re meeting our audience where they are.” His hope was to appeal to younger moviegoers, and mint a new generation of “Color Purple” fans.
“We all knew that we had to do our absolute best,” he said, “because the bar is high, and we couldn’t be the ones to come in below it.”