In a new film version of The Color Purple, the American Idol–winning singer makes her big-screen debut, stepping back into the role that made her a Broadway star
Two years after Fantasia Barrino was crowned American Idol in 2004, the producer Scott Sanders invited her to come see the new Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Color Purple. It was Barrino’s first time at a Broadway show, and afterward Sanders asked her if she wanted to star in it. “I was like, ‘You want me to do that?’” she recalls, her voice a breathy coo, on the phone from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina. She had never acted before—apart from playing herself in a TV movie about her life—but she said yes, and went on to wow audiences and critics with her powerful portrayal of Celie, an oppressed, abused woman who, after years of unspeakable hardship, learns to fight back and embrace the beauty inside herself. Unfortunately, the role took a toll on Barrino, who had been raped and abused herself, and who was forced to relive those experiences onstage eight times a week. So, unsurprisingly, it took some convincing—from Sanders, Oprah Winfrey, and director Blitz Bazawule—to get her to step back into Celie’s shoes for the film adaptation of the musical, in theaters now. Featuring an all-star cast of actors and musicians, including Taraji P. Henson, Corey Hawkins, Danielle Brooks, and H.E.R., this reimagined version of The Color Purple bursts with hope and love. For Barrino, making the movie was life-changing: “This time, playing Celie, I’ve accepted the fact that, yeah, I am beautiful. Yeah, Celie was. She just needed a reminder. I just needed a reminder.”
I just realized that 2024 marks 20 years since you won American Idol. Does it feel like forever ago, or like it was yesterday?
Twenty years—even when you say that, it just seems like everything went so fast. But that is a moment that I’ll never, ever forget, so I have to go with, yeah, it feels like yesterday. I remember Ryan Seacrest calling my name, and I think I must’ve put Diana DeGarmo in a headlock, I just hugged her so tight. That was the day that everything broke off of me. I don’t know if you remember that, but my necklace broke, my bracelet, and the heel of my shoe. I really liked those shoes too, so I was pissed, but it broke, and that was the moment that I realized that life was changing, and I was about to finally do something that I’d always had dreams about. That is something I will never, ever forget: the feeling of finally being able to step into my destiny.
You’ve said that starring in The Color Purple on Broadway was the most difficult experience of your life. What scared you the most about taking on this role again?
I think I still had the time on Broadway in my head and in my heart. When I played Celie then, my life was just as chaotic [as hers]. I’m carrying somebody else’s cross, and I’m trying to carry my own, and I remembered walking away from that feeling drained, suffocated. I caught two tumors on my vocal cord. So I was like, Oh, no, I can’t do it [again]. I just can’t do it. But playing it this time was totally different.
I think it’s because of where I am, the peace I have, the growth. This time I got to see everything that I thought was so, so, so bad totally different. Now I catch everything that Celie is saying: her gestures, what she’s doing, her thoughts, how she made it through, how tough she was. She was tough, and I’m tough. I think that I’m that down-home Southern girl and that I’m relatable. I will talk to anybody, and sometimes they’ll say to me, “I don’t know how you made it through that,” and I look at them, and I laugh, and I say, “Girl, with God,” because I don’t know sometimes either. But there was something deep down in there that kept me going, something deep down in there that kept Celie going. So when Blitz called me—because I got the call from Scott, I got the call from Oprah, but it wasn’t until Blitz, the director, called and told me what he wanted to do with Celie this time [that I agreed]. He gave Celie an imagination. And I was like, sold. Thank you.
Yeah, there’s a touch of magical realism in the film, and some of the musical numbers play out in Celie’s imagination, and it’s incredibly moving. It shows that she can still be full of hope, even if her daily life is full of darkness.
She had to have an imagination to make it through that stuff. She had to be thinking and taking herself to so many different places in order to make it through. I was proud and happy that he was giving her an imagination and not silencing her, because everybody deals with dramas and traumas differently. She kept it internal, but there was a way that she got things out.
Was making the movie as emotionally challenging as doing the Broadway show?
I think it was just as difficult. Of course, I’ve grown and I’m married and I’m happy and I believe in my therapy sessions—I love them, and I love my therapist!—but you start to realize a lot of things that you felt you had let go of are hidden. You bury it, and now you’re living life, and you’re a mom, and you’re going and you’re going. You don’t have time to really sit and think and live with those traumas—not unless you’re actually in a therapy session. So, honestly, I had to stop my therapy. We could not work as long as I was Celie, because I needed to feel what I had to feel, and I needed to go back.
That must have been difficult—to go back there.
Yeah, it’s taxing, but there’s a part in the film where I do a wail at the end, when my children fall in my arms. That, for me, was real-life healing. I got my healing during that. Oprah texted me that night and was like, “I could actually tell that what happened to you today was some form of freedom.” It was a breakthrough for me. I could actually forgive all of the past, all of the people who’ve hurt me—anything, I forgive it. Now I’m free. That is why I had to play Celie for the very last time: because if it freed me, I know for a fact it’s going to free a lot of women who have held a lot of things in that they have not spoken about. I know it to be true, because I’ve had women come up to me and say it: “Because of you, because of Celie.”
At the end of The Color Purple, Celie sings “I’m beautiful, and I’m here,” and it’s this powerful realization that she matters and that she’s worthy of love. After all the trauma and pain you had experienced growing up, was winning Idol that moment for you, or did it come later?
It wasn’t on Idol. I think, on Idol, I was still carrying so many insecurities, and I was so young. I was 19. Everything started coming at me, and everything happened so fast. [Pauses.] Ooh, that’s a good question. I like that you asked me this. I didn’t really start to feel beautiful until I met my husband, and that was nine years ago. But before that, I was on my second Broadway play, After Midnight, and I realized that I had to put some time into me. I didn’t love myself, so I wasn’t going to be able to allow anybody else to come in and love me. I put everything and everyone else before me. And Celie, she’s so much like myself. I say we’re twins. I think she’s a Cancer—I’m a Cancer. Playing Celie this time really helped me fully heal and just realize, like, yo, Celie was always beautiful. She was just put down. She was always brilliant. She just didn’t have anybody to [help] her to figure it out. That’s a lot like my story.
The Color Purple focuses a lot on sisterhood and community, and you definitely had an amazing cast to support you through this. Did you all form strong bonds?
I built a true sisterhood with them. When this movie is over, and we are a year or two down the line, I know for a fact that we will all still be in each other’s lives. We became a true family. There were lots of laughs: Every time there was a rough scene for me, Taraji would run over and just make me laugh. Everybody wanted to see me win. I feel like I went to the best school of acting, of arts, of theater, by being around Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins—I’m a fan of everybody. I was the only rookie on the team, and I will just say this: They didn’t let me fall. They were always there to pick me up.
On a lighter note, how was it learning to tap dance?
It was not easy! There was a lot of soaking the feet, a lot of blisters, but it did so much for me, and it does so much for Celie, to see herself in that element, to see herself stepping out and living in that joy bubble and challenging herself. She did not allow her scars and the beatings to slump her over and hide her face. That’s a moment where I’m like, Yeah, I’m proud of her. I looked at it like that, and I kept saying, “I’m going to get this. My feet are not that fast, but I’m going to get this.”
There have been so many moments in your life when you’ve been thrown into something, and it’s either sink or swim: tap dancing, yes, but more so becoming a mother at age 17, winning Idol and becoming a pop star overnight, starring in a Broadway show when you had never done a musical before, and now tackling your first film. How do you just go in there and do it?
Well, I look at it like this: I believe in angels. I believe that people see something in me that I don’t see in myself. Like the security guard who got me back into the American Idol [auditions] when they locked the doors, or Scott Sanders, who asked me to be in Color Purple, and I’m thinking, You’ve never seen me act! Why me? I look at these people like angels on Earth. I believe that we have a lot of people that are assigned to our lives, and if we just slow down and pay attention we will start to see our guardian angels or people who come into our lives that see things we can’t see.
You wrapped a 62-date tour in November. Are you looking to get back into the studio to record a new album?
I would like to do something for my grandmother, which is work on a gospel album. I came from the church, grew up singing gospel starting at the age of 5, and my grandmother was my biggest fan, and I want to honor her and do that. I also have fallen in love—in love!—with jazz. I got to sing at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra, and I was able to do songs like “What a Difference a Day Makes,” and it made me feel very beautiful and elegant. I would like to step out and do some different things. I would love to do another movie. I would love to challenge myself and also give the children some time, because I don’t want to miss out on all the most important things in life.
Amen to that. Any last words of wisdom for us?
I’m going to end it like this, just like you said it: You’ve had a lot of things come at you, and you’ve challenged yourself to do it. I don’t know what’s next, but I do know that when it comes, I’m going to do my very best at it and just give God thanks for the next angel that comes. Whatever door opens, I’ll walk through it the best I can.