In 1985, Steven Spielberg was riding high from a string of commercial successes (1941 notwithstanding), but he was largely considered a populist director from the critical community, and he was eager to break free from that snooty point of view. When producer Quincy Jones approached him to adapt Alice Walker‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple for the big screen, he was unsure if he was the right man for the job, but he also understood the potential such subject matter would allow him to stretch beyond popcorn fun.
It is fascinating to consider where Spielberg’s career might have gone had he declined the script. Would Empire of the Sun alone have led him to the respectability of Schindler’s List, forever altering his perception as a blockbuster director? To not trust the success of Spielberg is a foolish endeavor. No doubt he would still be among the most financially prosperous figures in Hollywood.
The film would garner 10 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, plus two Best Supporting Actresses nods, for Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey, as well as a Best Actress nod for Whoopi Goldberg. Still, the question as to whether or not Speilberg was the ideal voice for Walker’s story of survival and triumph in post-Civil War South remained well after production wrapped and box office closed. It is hopefully doubtful that a white male director like Spielberg would attempt to helm a remake today.
We will learn soon enough. According to Collider, Spielberg, Winfrey, and Jones are teaming up with Broadway producer Scott Sanders to adapt Walker’s narrative as a movie musical. The story has already had a massively lucrative run on stage in this form from 2005 to 2008, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006. The show has already experienced one revival since and picked up two more Tonys in 2016. Since its inception, the musical has made more than $350 million. Another movie adaptation only makes sense.
The most recent Broadway production featured music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Alee Willis, and starred Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale, Widows) in the lead role of Celie (Goldberg’s role in the original film). Her participation has not been locked down for the adaptation, but you can guarantee those talks are already well in play. Failure to secure her performance would cause a tremendous burden for the producers to find a replacement of equal talent.
This new Color Purple is still in the very early stages of development, and along with no actors cast, no writer or director has been secured either. Given the backlash that Spielberg received in 1985 combined with the current cultural climate, finding the right filmmakers is crucial. We suggest to the producers that they go back to our own Ciara Wardlow’s excellent celebration of Black Women Filmmakers of the 20th Century, and appreciate the suggestion of 21st Century talents like Amma Asante, Ava Duvarney, and Dee Rees. I would personally like to think that Hollywood could not possibly stumble in selecting the appropriate voice for The Color Purple, but such faith has yet to be earned.