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Fantasia Barrino-Taylor on the Pain (and Joy) of ‘The Color Purple’

Throughout the six months of production on the new film adaptation of “The Color Purple,” Fantasia Barrino-Taylor, who plays the protagonist Celie Johnson, often called on God for strength.

“There were times that I just felt like I’m not going to make it. I cannot do it. I would cry going to set. I would cry leaving set,” she admitted sadly. “I would talk to God, and I would tell him, ‘You’ve got to make this make sense. Make it make sense. There’s got to be something out of this.’ It was so hard.”

The film, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, details the transformative journey of a rural Georgia woman in the early 20th century. First adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, then reinterpreted for Broadway in 2005, it has once again been retrofitted as a musical, complete with dance. The role of Celie, however, remains consistent — one of inveterate trauma, stretched over decades of abuse by first her stepfather, then her husband, until she manufactures the strength to stand on her own. Onstage, when Barrino-Taylor took over the part in the original Broadway run, and then on film, that meant enduring endless verbal attacks, physical abuse and lovelessness, which was difficult to manage on a daily basis. Barrino-Taylor would often leave the set deflated and bruised from doing her own stunts.

Before production began, she had “started traumatic therapy, where you tap into the younger person, the younger Fantasia, and you try to heal things that you either suppress or are literally forgotten,” she said in a video interview. A wife, mother of four, grandmother and owner of two dogs, Barrino-Taylor, now 39, was committed to being her best self to those around her. “I wanted to take this healing journey. So, I had to stop therapy, and I had to allow Celie to be my life coach. Girl, that wasn’t easy.”

Barrino-Taylor with Taraji P. Henson in “The Color Purple,” a new adaptation of the Broadway musical.Credit…Ser Baffo/Warner Bros. Pictures

Barrino-Taylor, like Celie, is a Southern gal, warm and genuine, driven by God, and willed toward a life of healing after sexual assault, among other hardships. But when the chance to star in a big-screen adaptation of the musical was presented to her, she was reluctant to revisit the pain she had experienced on Broadway.

Tasia, as she is affectionately known, is a PK (preacher’s kid), and was raised in the Baptist church, where at 5 she began singing gospel. In 2003, still a teenager, she won Season 3 of “American Idol,” jump-starting a career as a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, actress and author. Along the way, she soldiered through an onslaught of personal misfortune that included depression, a suicide attempt, bankruptcy and more.

It was during her healing process, years later, when the veteran stage and film producer Scott Sanders contacted her. Buoyed by fellow producers Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, he asked Barrino-Taylor to play Celie in the screen adaptation. They had worked closely when she starred in the Broadway show in 2007-8. She said no.

“Celie is the spine of the story; she is the backbone of ‘The Color Purple,’” Sanders said in an interview, and he knew that Barrino-Taylor could be great onscreen despite her experience with the stage show.

“It was a challenging time in her life, and it was very hard for her to compartmentalize between being Fantasia Barrino in the daytime and being Celie Johnson at night,” he explained. “When she was called ugly eight times a week onstage during that run, it took a very strong emotional toll on her. It was a rough nine months for her on Broadway.”

Barrino-Taylor “has an endless well of emotion and depth, and that’s one thing that this character needed an abundance of,” said the film’s director, Blitz BazawuleCredit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times

Barrino-Taylor concurred, suggesting her youth was also to blame; she simply wasn’t mature enough to cope with the personal crises she was experiencing. “I felt like I was carrying my cross and Celie’s cross. And that was an overload at my age,” she said. “I had not started dealing with the traumas in my life. So, me putting my traumas into Celie’s life, who had trauma — that wasn’t it for me, girl.”

Barrino-Taylor told Sanders that she would pray about it. It wasn’t until the director Blitz Bazawule came aboard that things started to shift.

Bazawule, a Ghanaian filmmaker known for Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” and “The Burial of Kojo,” a critically praised drama that initially caught Sanders’s eye, wanted to incorporate magical realism into “The Color Purple.” While he respected Spielberg’s drama, referring to it as a “cinematic classic,” Bazawule realized one aspect that hadn’t been explored was Celie’s head space. He said he wanted to create a film that could tap into not just Celie’s triumph, but also her learning how to love, whom to love and how to forgive. And he knew Fantasia was the one to bring that vision alive.

“She has an endless well of emotion and depth, and that’s one thing that this character needed an abundance of,” he said. “There are not many humans that have that ability, but also are one of the greatest singers of all time.” He added that he had known Fantasia since her “American Idol” days and had followed “her ups, her downs, some public, some private, and I knew that if she said yes, there was going to be a spectacular rebirth of somebody we knew and loved, which, in a lot of ways, mirrored the character and her agency to arrive where she needed to be.”

Bazawule said he and Barrino-Taylor talked deeply about how people who always triumphed, including herself, had to first see it in their head.

“A lot of people miscategorize people who have dealt with abuse and trauma as docile, waiting to be saved and, a lot of time, passive. I think that’s quite false,” he said. “People who have dealt with trauma and abuse are constantly in their heads, trying to liberate themselves. And in that head, you build grand visions of how to do so. So I started sketching these larger-than-life moments.”

Barrino-Taylor was reluctant to revisit the material after Broadway, and the producer Scott Sanders understood: “It was very hard for her to compartmentalize between being Fantasia Barrino in the daytime and being Celie Johnson at night.”Credit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times

Bazawule “put voices to the sketches, and he allowed me to see that he was giving Celie an imagination,” Barrino-Taylor recalled. “Celie didn’t have an imagination on Broadway. Celie didn’t have an imagination in the first movie.”

She added, “The good thing about Scott Sanders is he turned it into a Broadway play and added music, which was a great part of how we got through stuff. Our ancestors sang their way through, they danced their way through, so to add that to the movie was perfect. And that’s when I was like, ‘I’m in.’”

Celie’s thoughts are explored in several scenes, aided by song. As she walks through a chain gang and sees washerwomen who have found joy and peace, she thinks about her own lack of freedom. On the beach, when she reads her banished sister’s hidden letters, she sees her ancestral lineage in Ghana, resplendent in gold and kente cloth, the red color denoting mourning and loss. After she finally rids herself of her cruel husband, she radiates bliss through dance and melody inside her new business, a safe space.

In the film, Celie’s self-awareness and confidence builds steadily in the presence of Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), the free-spirited, local celebrity and, later, Celie’s lover and friend. While still suffering at home, Celie comes into her own much sooner than in the original film. She’s comfortable wearing sequins and lipstick, and her bond with Shug is more pronounced.

Bazawule’s intention was to oscillate between joy and pain, a very human approach, he said. “We never wallow in just pain. Certainly, a people who have birthed such beautiful manifestations to this world, there’s no way that Black people just deal with pain. It’s impossible,” he said. “When you hear gospel, when you hear jazz, when you hear all these things, that’s turning pain into power.”

He explained that the pain-joy approach “gave us a much fuller picture of her struggles. It was also the back and forth between her reality and her fantasies, and that is also a very important place, a refuge, in a way, for someone like her who was dealing with an external abuser. She could create a world in which she was more powerful than her abuser.”

Celie experiences bliss in part through dance. However, Barrino-Taylor, known for gospel and R&B ballads, wasn’t used to up-tempo movement.

“When they first said I had to learn how to tap dance, I thought everybody was crazy,” she said, giggling. “I literally laughed, I cried, I laughed, I cried. I was terrified. I didn’t even think my feet were going to move.”

The process was challenging, but Barrino-Taylor stuck with it. After a full day of shooting on location in Georgia, she dragged herself into her garage, armed with a pair of tap shoes and got to work. “We wouldn’t get home until, like, 6, 7 o’clock in the morning. But I would go in there, put my tights on, and I would practice. Because I knew on the day when we filmed, I needed to allow Celie to take over, not be thinking 1-2-3-4, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba,” she rhythmed.

Bazawule “allowed me to see that he was giving Celie an imagination” that she didn’t have in the first movie or onstage, Barrino-Taylor said. Credit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times

She practiced so long and late that her mother confronted her, asking why she was pushing herself so hard. “I said, ‘Ma, I’ve got to do it for Celie.’” As Barrino-Taylor saw it, this was Celie’s first joyful moment, and we need to see her whole body move. After Celie has been slapped around by her husband, Mister (Colman Domingo), and she’s taken care of his children and toiled in the garden, Barrino-Taylor said, “I’ve got to show these girls that, through Celie, we don’t have to stop moving.”

On the call, she demonstrated that when someone is really dancing, that person’s feet, body and arms are in motion, and all of that is a release, a natural discharge of emotion and stress. “I needed for that to be Celie’s moment of, ‘Girl, look at me!’ And when I finally did get it, I was like a kid in a candy store. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m tapping, everybody!’”

Not a lot of attention is paid to Celie’s hair, which offered yet another source of comfort for Barrino-Taylor. Unprocessed and simply fashioned into a few hanging braids, it was a style that would have been common for rural, African American women of that time. Barrino-Taylor was ashamed to wear that hairstyle on Broadway, but this go-round, she displayed it proudly.

“I thought that naturalness was beautiful,” she said. “I used to braid my dad’s mom’s hair. She had very soft, thick hair. I would grease her hair for her and braid it up. I felt like my grandmother.”

Shortly before this interview, Barrino-Taylor learned she had been nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy. Ever humble, she didn’t know what to make of it.

“That was my prayer. Like, Lord, don’t let my work be in vain, meaning not for awards, but meaning, let these girls see — you are beautiful. You’re placed on this earth for a reason. You’re brilliant. You’re smart. You are seen. And you can fall, but you can get back up.”

Barrino-Taylor, who rose, fell and rose again, can rest assured that her prayer was heard.

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