It’s not often that a Hollywood premiere is met with continual cheers, gasps, tears and several rounds of applause during its screening, but that was Warner Bros.’ The Color Purple‘s force of nature at the David Geffen Academy Museum Theater Wednesday night.
The feature take of the 2005 Broadway musical, which in and of itself is an adaptation of the 1982 Alice Walker novel and Steven Spielberg‘s 1985 11x Oscar nominated movie, could change the tune of musicals at the box office when it opens on Christmas Day. While musicals have paled as recently as 2019 pre-pandemic with Cats, when they work, they work big on the big screen, and the story about a young Black southern woman’s struggle to find her identify over four decades is not without its spiritual showstoppers.
Oprah Winfrey, who produced the original Broadway show, starred as Sofia in the Spielberg pic (and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination) and is producer here on the latest movie, told the crowd last night, “This film couldn’t have happened without the original, and couldn’t have happened without Steven Spielberg allowing it to happen.”
“I had to call Steven –(producer) Scott (Sanders) said ‘You call him’–I called Steven and asked for permission.”
“We’ve been asking him for several years,” said Winfrey about approaching Spielberg for the OK to do a musical remake of the original film.
“Steven wasn’t sure, then he said yes in 2018,” she continued.
“What made me say ‘yes’ was your production of The Color Purple musical on Broadway, which I thought was extraordinary,” said Spielberg, “I didn’t really know if Color Purple had another movie in it.”
“You and the songwriters, and that cast proved that there was another iteration that could actually stand on its own,” he continued, “My version being its context, but not defining it. This was relevant for our time for now for audiences today, and I entrusted Scott (Sanders) and Oprah.”
Winfrey shared how her casting in the film changed her life forever; that fate brought about by Quincy Jones’ visit to Chicago during a lawsuit against Michael Jackson. The 28x Grammy winner caught Winfrey on a local show in the city, AM Chicago and phoned up Spielberg, saying that he found their Sofia for the film; Jones being a producer on the original movie.
“Seeing Steven Spielberg, coming here to audition, and seeing that Steven Spielberg had his own studio called Amblin, put the idea in my head that I could have a studio one day called Harpo,” Winfrey said.
Spielberg told the crowd that when Jones first approached him to direct the novel back in 1984, The Raiders of the Lost Ark director said, “But you need a black director for this.”
“Quincy insisted it would be you,” added Winfrey.
Spielberg continued, “He (Jones) said, ‘Did you have to be an alien to direct E.T.? and I said, ‘Actually, I am an alien!’”
The filmmaker drew encouragement while on set from “Alice (Walker) who was on the set every day.”
“After every take, I would look at her, and her deeply quiet confidence and those warm eyes told me –because this was my first grown up movie–after every take ‘you’re doing a good job, keep going.’”
On the red carpet, the director behind the latest The Color Purple, Blitz Bazawule, told Deadline, “The Color Purple, like Black life and Black existence oscillates between joy and pain. So for me, it was always about just finding those points that I could go back and forth between. In terms of Fantasia (Barrino as Celie, Danielle (Brooks as Sofia) and Taraji (P. Henson as Shug Avery), I mean, it was a masterclass every day. Remember you have someone who is an incredible recording artist, someone who is a veteran on stage, someone who is a veteran on TV. And, so, we had a great amalgam and mix of different energies and different expertise. But what I love is that these women held each other’s hands and there was truly a bond of sisterhood. And that’s what we were able to grow and create.”
The 1985 feature adaptation of Walker’s novel also propelled the early career of Whoopi Goldberg, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Celie. While Spielberg was counted as one of the producers under the movie’s Best Pic nom, the Academy overlooked him that year in the directing category.
Currently, box office tracking shows The Color Purple strong among women, older and Black moviegoers. Presales we hear are very strong, especially in the South. While projections show an opening of $8M for its Christmas Day opening (which is quite solid) the commercial success of The Color Purple will be determined throughout its play over the post Christmas and New Year’s period, i.e. The Greatest Showman posted a first week’s take of $24.2M before going on to make $174.3M stateside at the box office. Golden Globe noms on Monday should also help give The Color Purple a boost at the B.O.