It’s not the first moment we meet the show-stealing Danielle Brooks as Sofia in Blitz Bazawule’s musical adaption of “The Color Purple,” but it might as well be, so clearly (so amusingly) does it capture her essence.
Picture this: We’re in Harpo’s (Corey Hawkins) newly built cabin (situated, somewhat strangely, smack in the middle of the bayou), a home he’s endeavored mightily to make his own, when who should appear? His own fiancée, Sofia, as ebullient and self-assured as any character we meet in the Alice Walker adaptation, who doesn’t just enter her future house, but literally kicks down the door to make her way inside.
It’s Sofia in a nutshell: buoyant, confident, funny, a little crazy, and impossible to ignore. So it’s only fitting that Brooks, who brings Sofia so wonderfully to life in the film, can be thanked for its creation.
Brooks’ door-kicking bluster is already paying off: She’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award (CCA) in the supporting actress categories, in addition to best ensemble nods from the CCAs and the Black Reel Awards. An Oscar nod seems likely (and deserved), but Brooks isn’t too fussed about that. First? She just really wants to talk about everyone else around her who made this work possible.
“That’s just a testament [to] working with a director who trusts their actors,” the actress said of that door-kicking (and, it seems, more). “I’m grateful because there have been moments in my career, in characters I played where [I felt] hindered. You feel like, ‘Man, I thought you hired me because you thought I had some good ideas and knew this character.’ Sometimes that doesn’t always get to translate through the screen. With this [film], every choice that I made, I felt confident in it because Blitz gave me the permission to make Sofia of my own.”
She added with a smile, “And so did Miss Oprah, who was there on set a lot of the time.” (Miss Oprah is, of course, Oprah Winfrey, who produced Bazawule’s film and played Sofia in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation of Walker’s book.)
While much of “The Color Purple” traces the arc of Fantasia Barrino’s Miss Celie — a traditionally plotted story, one that steadily traces her growing self-respect and self-determination, all leading up to the show-stopping “I’m Here” and a final sequence that sees her enjoying her hard-won happiness — Sofia’s arc is different.
Brooks’ character is initially delivered to us as confident, outspoken, and secure in her desires as a woman. She kicks down doors. She leaves her husband when he tries to beat her. She finds a new love. She sings an entire song about keeping her self-worth in the face of anyone getting in her way (it’s called “Hell No,” and it’s glorious). She’s the sort of character we expect to see someone grow into, the kind of person we celebrate at the end of a long, hard journey.
Which makes her eventual arc that much more wrenching, as the second half of “The Color Purple” sees Sofia imprisoned, abused, and beaten down after a horrific run-in with a racist white woman (a skin-crawling Elizabeth Marvel) who simply can’t believe that a Black woman like Sofia wouldn’t want to come work as her maid. Snatched from her family, locked up in the local jail, taken completely out of the life she’s made for herself, even Sofia starts to crumble. That’s a different arc. That’s what Brooks loves.
“The thing that I love about Sofia is that it’s true to reality,” Brooks said. “For some people, life is going to be full of coming back into yourself and discovering yourself again, and figuring out how to go back and pick up pieces of yourself that were helpful for the journey and then let go of some things that aren’t. I had the joy of my life playing with this character, because the same way in which Sofia has her power, loses her power, [she] comes back into it, I feel like I’ve gone through a similar journey with myself. It’s been a really incredible trajectory of growth as an artist for myself.”
Brooks pointed back to her time at Juilliard (she graduated in 2011, two years before her breakout role in Netflix’s hit series “Orange Is the New Black”) to further illustrate her point. “You get into Juilliard, you’re studying, and you have this fearlessness, or I had this fearlessness about myself that you really couldn’t tell me nothing,” she said. “I just enjoyed acting so much and I would fall and not care and get back up again, it was OK to throw myself at whatever I was being taught or learning. And it wasn’t until I really entered into this industry and started to get some notoriety that I started to doubt that.”
Playing Sofia, first on Broadway and then in Bazawule’s film? That righted things for her. “It was through playing Sofia and singing ‘Hell No’ every night on Broadway for a year in 2015 that really helped me to come out of my slump of feeling like I wasn’t enough or feeling imposter syndrome, feeling like, ‘How did I get here?’” she said. “Then getting to play her in this movie, I feel like I’ve had my own moment at the dinner table of coming back into myself … of owning my power through this character, and owning my power in this industry, and knowing that there is a place for me in this industry in the way in which I can move is by being my authentic self.”
Alongside Barrino (who played Celie in the original Broadway production, picking up from LaChanze; Barrino also played the role on tour) Brooks is the only other Broadway holdover to make up the film’s cast. She previously played Sofia during the 2015 Broadway revival of the musical, earning Brooks her first Tony nomination.
She’s been open about her struggle to get cast in Bazawule’s theatrical version — to say she seemed like both the best and the most obvious choice is clear within the first 30 seconds she’s onscreen, but Hollywood sure can be strange — but even that process seemed to have further crystallized Brooks’ determination.
Brooks recalls shooting the first season of the Max/DC series “Peacemaker” in Canada in early 2021 while she was trying to lock up the “Color Purple” job. It wasn’t going so well. “I was still in my process of trying to get this job, and a lot of different names were being floated around [for Sofia], and that was intimidating me and making me feel like, ‘Man, this really might not swing in my direction,’” she recalled.
The actress turned to her director and series creator James Gunn about her fears, “and James took time during filming to talk to me. He was just telling me about keeping the faith, and if I really wanted it, to go for it. And don’t be afraid to write Blitz a letter. Because I was asking James, like, ‘Should I write Blitz a letter? Is that too aggressive or too much?’ And he was like, ‘No, I don’t think it is.’ He just took that time to help comfort me, [reminding me that] you’ll end up where you need to, but don’t be afraid to fight for what you want.” She fought. She won.
But the prize was a different Sofia than she had known on Broadway. Trimmed down from the stage show’s 155-minute running time, Bazawule’s film does not include over a dozen songs Brooks and company performed on Broadway. She misses some of them, like “Dear God — Sofia” and “Any Little Thing.” But she gets why these changes were made, like the alterations to “Hell No,” which is sped up and turned into “more like an anthem for women’s empowerment” in the film.
“It was about understanding the vision of our director and what he was going for,” Brooks said. “Me and Blitz had about an hour, hour and a half conversation when I was first going through my audition process, and I could tell, he was bringing a new light to it. He was giving it a facelift in a way to really match the needs of this generation. I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ … It’s very rare that an actor gets to play the same character in two different mediums. But now, I was coloring with an endless coloring box. That’s how I felt, endless crayons.”
There was endless new energy, too. “I have the elements now. I’m in Georgia. I have the sun beaming on my face,” Brooks recalled. “I have all of the things that I need to really bring Sofia to life in the best way that I knew how. The addition of having new actors, they bring new energy, they’re bringing new choices and digging deeper into the work as well. … Getting to play her [again], it just was like putting out a bull that you’re trying to stop. I was ready to cut up and just go for everything. To not leave any crumb on the floor when I got that opportunity.”
Other changes offered different results. Consider again the scene in which Sofia is arrested, which “really took a toll” on Brooks’ body, “because I ended up having to do that scene over the course of two days for multiple hours a day, and it pulled my back out,” she explained. “Swinging back and forth trying to get the mob off of me. Of course, we have an incredible stage combat leader [stunt coordinator Mark Hicks] and his crew were fabulous, but doing it over and over, that really took me out, where I had to do physical therapy and go to the chiropractor for a few weeks to recover while still having to work.”
On Broadway, that scene is “stripped down to just a bare stage with wood and wooden chairs,” Brooks said. “So when we did the mob scene on Broadway, you don’t even see it. You just see me come down center stage and fall to my knees, and then you’ll see I lift my head up and now I’ve transformed into a new version, a downtrodden, spirit-stolen Sofia, which I can sustain for a year. But it’s much different doing [it for real], and having 10 to 15 guys surrounding you and you wanting to put everything in it because you want it to make sense from every angle, to not feel like you phoned it in. … I pride myself on being a physical actor. That’s where I live. I love finding how I can use all of my body for the character. I just want to use everything that I can.”
Brooks credits her Juilliard training for her helping her emerge from the tough task of playing Sofia, particularly in scenes that require both physical and emotional acuity and passion. At the end of a day on set, Brooks has a routine.
“The first thing I have to do is get out of my wig, get out of my clothes, and I take a hot towel to my face and wipe off the character. That seems to help,” she said. “But when you talk about the internal, the spiritual part of giving of yourself, that takes time. To me, a lot of it has to go back to the ancestors. I call it blood work because you have to go down your bloodline and talk to them, or at least I did, and pull from Black women in my family and Black women just in history that have experienced things like this. I think about those women, and it’s hard to shake those stories. I wrote in my journal at the end of it, I was like, ‘After 70-plus days of playing Sofia, I’m completely depleted.’ I was so drained.”
Knowing she will come out of it helps. “I do credit Juilliard for teaching us how to come out of character, how to not always go to the darkest of places within ourselves, to know when you do go there, that there is a way to pull out that you don’t have to stay there,” she said. “Each actor, you find your own way. And again, mine is taking off that wig right away, putting that hot towel on my face, taking the clothes off, wearing my jumpsuit and my Dr. Martens, getting my swag back, getting my spirit back. That helps me.”
As for what’s next? Brooks is continuing her role on “Peacemaker” and is set for a role in the upcoming “Minecraft” big-screen feature. She’d like to work with filmmakers like “The Harder They Fall” and “The Book of Clarence” director Jeymes Samuel and Steven Spielberg (“Come on, let’s get it!”), the kind of creators who could be “the right kindred spirit to make magic together.”
And she wants more magic, lots more, not just for herself either. She hopes the success of “The Color Purple” will make it “easier to get what is needed to support these films. I think that’s what it’s really about.” She continued, “Blitz can probably speak way better to this than I can, but I know that he did have to fight for a lot of stuff to get the budget to where it needed to get, to get the answers that he wanted. … It is an industry, everybody is trying to pinch a coin in every direction, but I do look forward to a day where you can have more than one Blitz Bazawule, more than one Ava DuVernay, more than one Dee Rees. Can we get multiple movies going at a time so that we can continue to expand our storytelling? I think we are just ready to get to a place where we don’t have to fight as hard.”
A Warner Bros. film, “The Color Purple” is now in theaters.