Fantasia Barrino-Taylor Has Already Won

For Fantasia Barrino-Taylor, returning to the character of Celie in The Color Purple—a character she knew well from her nine-month run on Broadway in 2007, and select dates of the show’s national tour in 2010—meant taking a risk. The Color Purple is a heavy story. Celie is a heavy role. Barrino-Taylor knew if she stepped into Celie’s shoes again, it wouldn’t be easy for her to put aside the story once filming stopped. But if there’s anything she holds dear, it’s her faith, so she put her faith in Celie once more.

“Celie became my therapist,” Barrino-Taylor tells Harper’s Bazaar right before the resumption of award season earlier this month. (That’s not an exaggeration: The artist actually paused her therapy for trauma to fully commit to the role.) “When I was on set, I would just sit with Celie and think. She actually allowed me to heal. On Broadway, I hated playing her all the time. Now, I have so much respect for her. She’s elegant, she’s classy, she’s smart and bold and strong. And she’s so forgiving. I think that we’re missing a lot of that in the world today.”

“Celie became my therapist”

The Color Purple is, of course, one of the most formative Black stories of the 20th century. Originally a novel by Alice Walker, the story follows Celie’s personal trials as she grows up in the American South in the early 1900s, centering the sisterhood and community that lift her up in her darkest moments. Walker went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for the novel, and a 1985 adaption helmed by Steven Spielberg came soon after. It was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards that year, though it won none. (Controversy has often followed The Color Purple, and members of the film’s cast have suggested this may have hurt its Oscar chances. The Spielberg film ignited debates about its depiction of Black men; more recently, Walker herself has been accused of antisemitism.)

While there’s no denying the film industry has been caught in a bit of remake fatigue, Barrino-Taylor believes a new generation deserves to experience a fresh version of this story. Moviegoers seem to agree: The new Color Purple had the second-biggest Christmas box-office opening in history after its release in December. Barrino-Taylor and costars Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, and Colman Domingo are all receiving well-deserved Oscar buzz for their performances.

“It’s about dealing with trauma and the things that hinder us from our future.

“There’s a lot of young girls that probably have not seen the first Color Purple and probably didn’t get to experience it on Broadway either,” the American Idol winner says. “They need to know that they are beautiful. They need to know that no matter what they have been through, you can still come out good as gold. That’s what this story ultimately represents.”

She specifically describes the making of the new musical film as “bloodwork.” They filmed across the state of Georgia, where the state’s painful history surrounded the cast and crew. “This story taps into so much of our ancestors. We were filming on land [that] still had slave houses. We could feel this stuff,” she explains. “Taraji would look over at me and say, ‘If only this land could speak.’ We had to push through that. That was not easy.”

LYNSEY WEATHERSPOON

Barrino-Taylor hasn’t been shy about sharing how her story parallels Celie’s. Even after winning the third season of Idol in 2004, she faced myriad personal and professional battles, including financial woes, mental health struggles, and dealing with the heightened scrutiny of her personal life. Now, looking back after 20 years, she sees her challenges as necessary hurdles that helped bring her to this moment, and gave her the strength to take on Celie one more time. Barrino-Taylor was so dedicated to the process of acting as therapy, she even refused a stunt double for the film’s more flinch-worthy scenes.

“This is such a big, Black story”

“It was brave and it was scary at the same time, but I just knew I had to stay be in that headspace,” she says. “I had to do this for me—that’s what I told Colman during our scenes together. I just had to let go of certain things from my past.”

What our mothers and aunts and grandmothers have likely glossed over in the decades since the novel’s initial publication is that The Color Purple, besides being a story about Blackness and womanhood and generational trauma, is also a queer text. Some have argued that this new musical iteration, directed by Blitz Bazawule, doesn’t take a bold enough approach to the relationship between Celie and Shug, played by Henson. For Barrino-Taylor, it’s not so much about boldly declaring what Celie and Shug are or aren’t—for her, the focus remains simply on how they save each other.

“This is such a big, Black story,” the actor and singer says. “And I’m very overprotective over Celie. But I will say Shug Avery was the first person to show Celie love. It could have came in jeans or a skirt. She was the first person to put a mirror in front of her face and say: ‘Do you see what I see?’”

fantasia taraji p henson the color purple

Ser Baffo

Fantasia Barrino-Taylor with Taraji P. Henson in the 2023 musical film adaptation of The Color Purple

“It’s one of those movies that’s going to be talked about forever—whether good or bad, people are always going to have an opinion about something,” she adds, regarding the social media commotion surrounding the film. “I do think it’s all deeper than just having an opinion. It’s about dealing with trauma and the things that hinder us from our future.”

“To be sitting here today? I’ve already won.”

If there’s one theme Barrino-Taylor has repeatedly come back to throughout the process of returning to The Color Purple, it’s forgiveness—specifically for herself. She has spent two decades in an industry that has tried multiple times to count her out, and when she looks back now, she has stopped being critical of her early mistakes. They were lessons that eventually turned into hidden blessings, she says. She is focused on the future, but not fixating on it—if the right film comes along, sure, she’ll act again. She wants to make a gospel album and dedicate it to her grandmother. She is officially a licensed sommelier and will be releasing her own wine varietal soon. She is definitely not thinking about EGOT-ing. That’s missing the point of the personal peace she’s worked so hard to give herself.

“At the start of my career, I was so young. I was 19 years old. Everybody in my life was coming and going so fast, money coming and going so fast. And me being a young girl from High Point, North Carolina, who loved to sing, I wasn’t educated in this thing called ‘the industry,’” she says. “That took a toll on me, and I lost a lot. Now—I turn 40 this year, which I’m excited about—I sit back and look at my life and I just laugh.

“I can either cry or laugh, but there’s nothing to cry about anymore,” she says. “To be sitting here today? I’ve already won.”

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Bianca Betancourt is the culture editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com, where she covers all things film, TV, music, and more. When she’s not writing, she loves impulsively baking a batch of cookies, re-listening to the same early-2000s pop playlist, and stalking Mariah Carey’s Twitter feed.