Danielle Brooks on leaving a legacy with “The Color Purple” and being ready for a "weird" role next

Salon talks to the star about bringing her Sofia to the screen, the power of Walker, and diversifying her career

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 10, 2024 1:30PM (EST)

Danielle Brooks (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Danielle Brooks (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Back in 1982, Alice Walker published her genius novel "The Color Purple." That book would make her the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The same work would go on to change the nation by enlightening the minds and opening the hearts of millions of people who had no understanding of the beauty and horrors that came with Black life in Georgia during the 1900s, while simultaneously allowing those who knew that life very well, and what it took to survive during those times, to be seen. Steven Spielberg's acclaimed 1985 film adaptation starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover — a box office hit that garnered 11 Academy Award nominations — has become an American classic.

And now the story has been brought to stage and screen by a new generation of performers. Danielle Brooks, who plays Sofia in the new musical film adaptation, opened up about her personal connection to Walker's creation — and about the power of community, representation and telling the complete American story — on a recent episode of "Salon Talks."

Most people know Brooks, a Grammy Award-winning, Tony-nominated actor from her days of playing Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson on Netflix’s "Orange Is the New Black" and Leota Adebayo on the HBO superhero series "Peacemaker." Brooks made her Broadway debut in 2015 as Sofia in the revival of the 2005 musical adaptation of "The Color Purple," and she reprises her role in the star-studded 2023 film adaptation directed by Blitz Bazawule, for which she has already been honored with nominations for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Danielle Brooks here or read a Q&A of our conversation below, which we filmed before the Golden Globes were awarded and SAG nominations were announced, to learn more about the day Oprah Winfrey delivered the role of Sofia to her, how her days at Juilliard prepared her for this moment and to see if her daughter is bit by the acting bug like her mother. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on your [Golden Globe] nomination and all of the excitement around the film. How do you feel right now?

Oh my gosh, I am on cloud nine. I can't stop smiling. My cheeks hurt too much. Just from smiling. 

That’s a good problem to have.

Good problems. It's been an exciting few months — years, really, even from getting to start this project of “Color Purple” and film it, to now. It's been quite an extraordinary moment for me.

I saw that beautiful video of your daughter and her reaction to seeing you in the trailer of the film. So my question is — because I have a three-year-old — how did you get her to pay attention in the movies?

Well, she didn't quite pay attention. Luckily, trailers come early in movie theaters. To be honest, if that trailer would've came in an hour and a half, she would not have probably caught me because little baby girl would not stop talking during “The Little Mermaid.” 

"I was not going to let any fear creep into this moment because I knew this moment was bigger than myself, and I had a responsibility to everyone, my family, myself, the ancestors, my child, Oprah."

But it was amazing to see her reaction of seeing her mommy on a big screen, and her saying, "Mommy, look. It's you. It's you." My heart was so full because representation truly does matter, and that's what it was for me. When I first saw “The Color Purple” on Broadway when I was 15, my dad took me, and seeing people that looked like me, I was able to find my purpose. Even though she's four, I'm just excited for her and her journey to discovering what she wants to do by seeing people that look like her doing that thing. 

Would she be acting like mom? You started out pretty young.

Yeah. I started out young, doing church plays here and there when I was six years old, and then my mom found a lot of arts programs for me to be a part of. It's funny because I was lucky enough to do a screening for my hometown in Simpsonville, South Carolina, of the movie “The Color Purple,” and my daughter was there, and I told her, I whispered in her ear while we were having the mic and saying hey to everyone, and I said, "Say, 'Welcome to “The Color Purple.”” And she, to this day, will not stop walking around the house saying, "Welcome to 'The Color Purple.'" So I've been working on her, trying to get her to memorize things. It is not quite working though.

So your dad took you to see the play on Broadway when you were 15?


How many times have you seen “The Color Purple” over the years?

Trillions. I mean, the movie, the 1985 version by Steven Spielberg, is a staple for the African American community. Anytime it's on TV, you're going to see that movie. You're going to watch at least a good 45 minutes of it. So I've seen the movie a trillion times. But the Broadway show, I saw once, fell in love with the story, soaked up the book after that, devoured the book. Then after that, 10 years later, my first Broadway show that I starred in was “The Color Purple” revival in 2015. 

I played Sofia for a year of my life, eight shows a week, playing her and immersing myself in this story, so I know this story pretty well, and I really know Sofia in and out.

I had read the book — I've been an Alice Walker stan since I started my career as a writer — but I never sat down and watched the movie until the pandemic. [My wife and I] watched “The Color Purple” three times over the pandemic. I don't know if it affects you in the same way it affects me, but there are certain emotions and feelings that I get when I read the book. There's a different way I feel when I actually watch the film.


I saw it on Broadway too. Being Sofia for so long and engaging in the work so much, you are an expert — do you get different feelings when you experience the work in different ways?

We have built this multiverse, I haven't built it, but Oprah, Steven Spielberg to Quincy Jones and Scott Sanders, our producers, have built this multiverse with, of course, the one and only mother of “Color Purple,” Alice Walker. So when I read her work, to me, it's so personal. The story starts with, "Dear God," and for myself, I grew up in the church. My mother's a minister, my father's a deacon, and as a 14-, 15-year-old girl, which Celie was in our book, I too felt unseen, unheard, ugly, being a dark-skinned plus-sized girl, curly hair, which was not attractive to society at the time. I felt so small. The only way for me to express myself was through journaling, just like Celie, and talking to God. So that's how I connected to the book, in a very personal way.

"There's a reason that this story has continued on so long and has not died."

Then when I watched the movie, it was so incredible because now I'm seeing people that look like me embodying these parts. Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, embodying this part, but also, now people are getting to understand the trauma and hurt that Black women go through on a daily basis, our ancestors were going through. That alone hits another chord in me.

Then, seeing the play in 2005 ... now, I'm like, "Oh my gosh. Yes, once again, representation." I'm seeing people come together. Even when I saw the play and [then later] was in the play, seeing people that did not know each other holding hands and bonding over this, because they are so moved. This music that now is a part of this story too is hitting parts of them that are opening up chakras and allowing them to forgive, to love, to become the heroes of their own story, all of those things.

Now, with this new version of “Color Purple,” the Blitz Bazawule version, it's so much more joyous. We still get all of those things that I described — the healing, we get the connection with people that we normally wouldn't connect with, we get the personal story. But now we get the joy, because of this reimagining that he's doing with Celie's story and bringing us into what she hopes for her life by all of these fantasy moments that are happening. 

It's so layered, it's so beautiful. There's a reason that this story has continued on so long and has not died. It is something that will live forever, and it's something that will stick with us because it's dealing with human stuff. 

One thing I didn't think about when we talk about experiencing it in different ways is, how you felt at 15 is not how you're going to feel at 30 years old. This is probably why it's the perfect time to reimagine the story because we have access to more technology. We've uncovered more narratives.

We evolved, we changed. People as a society change. We're now tapping into moments like the MeToo movement, and you have songs like “Hell No,” which is now becoming a women's empowerment song that's saying, "Say hell no to whatever abuse you're dealing with, whatever boss that you might need to say hell no to," or whatever, even if it's your internal voices that you need to say "hell no" to. We have that now, and we have evolved so much that women are really starting to tap into it through things like the MeToo movement. Then you have moments like Celia and Shug's love story. We really have evolved when it comes to same-sex couples loving each other — and we still got a long ways to go in a lot of these moments, too. Like you said, you are going to be different or experience this story differently for the growth that you're experiencing in your own personal life.

Now, you said your dad was a deacon?


What do deacons do?

Deacons are men in the church that keep the church flowing and running a certain way.

That's what everybody tells me. Everybody tells me they keep it flowing. When I go to church, I see them sitting there, and they always have a nice suit, but nobody ever talks about how you get appointed to the role. Is it compensated? How do you get removed from the role? Is there a deacon union? 

No, no. It's not compensated. At least from my understanding, it's not compensated. But yeah, you do have to get appointed. People in the church have to view you as a leader. They have to see you as that.

My dad is that. He's really quiet-spirited, a good, good man. He's responsible, and he cares about the community. That's really what it's about. It's like the church is about community, and having these men care about the people that are coming in and wanting to worship and stuff like that. 

Alice Walker's Sofia was bold, resilient, a force, and then Oprah took the role, and she lifted Sofia right off of the page in a perfect way, bringing her to life in a way that many of us couldn't imagine. Now, the word is out. You have elevated the role to a different level and did an amazing job. Obviously, you're nominated [for a Golden Globe]. I feel like you're going to win a lot of things for this, for your performance. Can you just spend a little bit of time talking about the pressure? Because you took a perfect piece of art, and then you put your own, you inserted yourself and created another perfect piece of art.

To be honest, I feel like when Ms. Oprah specifically got on a Zoom, like we are on, popped up on that screen, surprising me to say, "You've gotten the role, and I'm passing the baton," those words came out of her mouth, to me, that was affirming and saying, "I'm giving this to you. Make it your own." 

I have a responsibility to myself, because, first, I'm a craftswoman. I've been doing this for a while. I studied at Julliard. I have a toolbox of actor tools that I use that I'm now given the opportunity to share in this story and share with the world what I know this character can be. I'm going to do it. I'm going to put 103,000% into that, because this story is serving such a huge purpose. People's lives are really changing off of this stuff, so I had a responsibility. 

But also, when I watched it on Broadway, it changed my life, watching professionals, watching people lay it out on the line, give everything they had into the role. So now I know I got a responsibility to serve some other young woman the same way LaChanze did in the Broadway show, the same way Ms. Oprah did for me watching her play Sofia. It's my turn to lay it down so the next young woman coming under me can follow the line and lean into the purpose that they have for their lives. 

"It's my turn to lay it down so the next young woman coming under me can follow the line and lean into the purpose that they have for their lives."

And then also, my brother, it's about the ancestors. Those that came before us, and honoring them and all of the hard work and dedication and sweat, tears, abuse that they've had to endure. And honor their stories. People like Fannie Lou Hamer who was, to me, a real-life Sofia, it's honoring them. That's why I'm so happy I've been given this opportunity. But there was no way that I was going to give anything less, I was not going to let any fear creep into this moment because I knew this moment was bigger than myself, and I had a responsibility to everyone, my family, myself, the ancestors, my child, Oprah, everybody, to lay it in and do what I needed to do. And also, our community might come for me if I didn't.

As an artist, sometimes I think about how sometimes it's like we have to win awards and things like that, but when you do something that's so impactful, do you think that the industry, or do you think that you personally, need certain awards to validate that?

I feel like I do not need awards to validate myself. I've done a lot of work on myself. There was a time that I felt that was a necessity to my growth. There are benefits, amazing benefits, to having the accolades and all of the things because I do think they do help elevate you, but also what you're building. If we want to tell more stories, those things help. If you want to do something in your community, those things help. So I do see the benefit of them, and I ain't going to say, "I don't want to be up on that stage." Now, let's get that correct. Because the girl's been dreaming for a very long time, and that is one of my dreams that I would love to be a reality.

But at the same time, the only validation I have to worry about and is necessary is my own and the Father above. That is what validates me. At the end of the day, what is so beautiful about this is no amount of money, no amount of accolades could give me the gift that I am receiving now. That is my purpose in this world, really spreading and changing lives. I'm leaving legacy. I'm leaving an imprint. When I am gone, people going to remember the Sofia that I played, and that to me means everything to me, because, like Denzel Washington has said, "You'll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse." I can't take this stuff with me, but what I can leave is legacy. What I can leave is a bit of hope for somebody to find their purpose. So that's what I am excited about being able to play Sofia.

That's beautiful. If you were sitting down with a writer or a team of writers and you had to imagine the perfect dream role for Danielle Brooks because you already knocked Sofia out of the park, so we're talking about something next, what is the perfect role for Danielle Brooks?

Oh my God, that's such a hard question. Danielle does not have an answer, and I'm so mad about it. Just someone with such complexity. We did the Palm Springs Awards last night, and I was looking at the body of work of my counterparts, and Emma Stone's career came up, and they were doing a reel. I was like, oh my gosh, the stuff that she's been able to do, I would love to get chances to do things like "Birdman" or do things like what she's doing, “Poor Things,” right now. Can I get a chance to step into some weird sh**?

That's the thing: I have studied so I can do it, but it's getting the opportunity as a Black woman to do it is what is hard. If you got any weird, wacky, psychological stuff that I could play, or you know anybody out there, that's what I'm really looking forward to, really diversifying my body of work. I feel like I've been able to do that, like you said earlier, playing things like “Peacemaker,” and about to do “Minecraft.” These are amazing things that really do get to show the range of what I can do, [like] playing Mahalia [Jackson], but there's some more stuff in there that I would love to explore. And I think sometimes I don't have the words, because I personally haven't been even handed scripts to read that make me feel that way.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Alice Walker Danielle Brooks Movies Oprah Winfrey Salon Talks The Color Purple