There’s a dazzling moment in the new “The Color Purple” (in theaters Dec. 25) in which Fantasia Barrino sings while walking on a huge shellac record spinning on a huge gramophone, all while spinning. Taraji P. Henson soak in a bathtub.
Perhaps that seems incongruous with Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which chronicles the abuse and ascendancy of Celie, a poor black woman living in the rural South in the early 20th century. But this image (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it image) trailer for a Warner Bros. release, is emblematic of a relatively psychologically unfettered approach to the venerated story that, though already adapted into an Oscar-nominated film and a crowd-pleasing Broadway musical, had yet to reveal its depth.
“I didn’t see why it needed to be remade; at first that was just my honest opinion,” admits musician-turned-director Blitz Bazawule. But in revisiting Walker’s deeply moving book (most of which is written as Celie’s letters to God), Bazawule found a different way to get to the roots of the character’s self-realization.
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“Celie had a lot of imagination and maybe that’s how she was able to deal with all the pain she was going through,” he says of the story’s soft-spoken heroine. “I felt that if she could really lean into that – and be close to the joy of her, the pain of her, the isolation of her – it would be a strong and valuable contribution not only to ‘The Color Purple’ canon but also to the medium. of musicals. .”
Bazawule presented previews of his “giant gramophone” scene (a fragment of his storyboard for the entire film, complete with sound effects and voiceovers from the script) to anyone who was on the fence about yet another adaptation.
“Anyone who saw it knew immediately that no, we’re not doing ‘The Color Purple’ like you think you know,” he says. Exploring interiority through magical realism was a narrative strategy that Bazawule had already taken advantage of in his 2018 Ghana-set feature film. “Kojo’s Burial” who wrote, directed and composed music.
The proposal convinced Barrino, who was hesitant to return to Celie after playing the emotionally burdensome role on Broadway. “She saw that my intention was to do something radically different and take real risks,” Bazawule recalls.
The idea to revisit Celie’s journey on screen—this time, as a musical—came from the huge success of the 2015 Broadway revival, which reconceived Walker’s narrative “as a communal meditation on a modern American myth.” wrote Times theater critic Charles McNulty. At the time. With minimalist sets and powerful performances by Cynthia Erivo and Danielle Brooks, the simple production won two Tony Awards; its cast recording won a Grammy.
“Alice Walker has written essentially a black Shakespeare story, and Shakespeare has been interpreted in a thousand different ways over the years,” says Scott Sanders, producer of the new film and the stage musical. “It was clear that ‘The Color Purple’ was relevant, important and had joined the canon of great musical theater.”
After finishing the Broadway run, Sanders began conversations with key players in the 1985 film: director Steven Spielberg, who still owned the film rights to the title, and star Oprah Winfrey and producer Quincy Jones, who also produced the Broadway musical. (Spielberg’s film, while praised for bringing Walker’s story to a wider audience, was criticized for its lack of nuances and to promote stereotypes about black men.)
“We wanted to be honest about how Celie suffered, but at the same time, we didn’t want the movie to feel like hard work,” says playwright and poet Marcus Gardley, who adapted the screenplay. The new film sporadically escapes joy with its musical numbers, allowing the viewer to follow Celie’s emotional journey without feeling overwhelmed by her horrific traumas, including rape by her father, abuse by her husband, and separation from her sister and their children.
“Every time we felt like the movie was sinking too far into tragedy, we wanted to do something organic to lift up the audience,” Gardley adds. “And how did these people overcome it? They used humor, laughter, music, imagination and the beauty of the earth. Everything we were bringing to give lightness to this story was already there in Celie’s world.”
There was also breadth in Celie’s own character. “At first she doesn’t talk much to people,” says choreographer Fatima Robinson, “but the quiet people watch everything. They take in a lot when people think they’re not even paying attention. “That gave us the creative license to go anywhere.”
The film’s most ornate dream sequence, even more so than the giant gramophone, shows Henson’s enigmatic jazz singer Shug Avery taking Celie on a movie date. Suddenly, “The Color Purple” transports us to a sumptuous Art Deco concert setting, complete with an all-black orchestra performing “What About Love?”, the tender duet in which Shug and Celie contemplate their budding romance.
Each of these fantastical leaps into Celie’s mind never feels too far from her reality, and that’s by design.
“[Cinematographer] “Dan Laustsen and I were very adamant about not doing what a lot of musicals do,” Bazawule recalls, “which is create these incredibly inventive camera movements for the big musical scenes, and then when it comes to the more ‘mundane’ narrative scenes, it just gets pretty basic and ends up feeling like two different movies. “We agreed from the beginning that, whether photographing large-scale choreography or intimate scenes, we were going to invest in long takes and let the camera move like a living, breathing organism.”
Other musical moments are more subtle. For example, the film begins with an aerial shot of “Mister” (Colman Domingo) plucking a banjo. The horse he rides accompanies him like a percussionist, hoof to hoof. “We rehearsed a lot and, as you can imagine, it’s not easy to keep up with that horse,” Bazawule says, laughing.
“Especially when the circumstances are ugly, your worlds have to be beautiful,” says the director, who spent months exploring (“driving the length and breadth of Georgia,” he recalls) to find surprising places. These include a waterfall for the ethereal. number from “She Be Mine” (cut from the original musical but here restored), plus sprawling oak trees covered in Spanish moss and a swamp that the production could drain to build Harpo’s music venue and then fill in for Shug’s grand entrance Avery. And since Spielberg lamented that the antebellum-style house in his film “misrepresented” Mister, Bazawule opted for a more humble home, built by architect Horace King.
The ambitious shoot was delayed a year due to the pandemic, which turned out to be a blessing. coming out Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King” Bazawule appreciated the extra-long pre-production period to fine-tune each element.
“The beautiful thing about working with Beyoncé is the attention to detail she brings,” he says. “She is Beyoncé because she pays attention to every little detail. Coming into such a sprawling film with so many brilliant craftsmen, I definitely learned from it to be informed about what everyone brings to the sandbox environment we play in, and to understand how it works as part of the narrative.”
Screenwriter Gardley says, “My mother jokes to me, ‘If you screw up this movie, don’t come home.'” He found solace in a piece of wisdom from novelist Walker decades ago, which he is happy to relate: “If you are hired to participate in any form of ‘The Color Purple,’ my ancestors have chosen you. And you can’t go wrong because they are very picky.” ”.
Although the musical film will be released in theaters on Christmas Day, Bazawule won’t have to wait for the reaction that matters most to him.
“Alice Walker visited us on set and asked to see what we had been filming,” he recalls. After showing her a shot, “I heard a loud sob and felt hands hugging me from behind,” she says. “She rested her head on me and kept saying the same thing over and over again: ‘This is what I always hoped it would be.’”
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