The Color Purple is a heart-wrenching journey inside a world few films have dared to explore. This critically acclaimed epic, which was adapted from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and directed by Steven Spielberg, chronicles the lives of poor African-American women born in Georgia in the early 1900s.
Through the eyes of Celie, the story's central character, moviegoers witness the horrors these women face, including domestic abuse, incest and racism.
Despite its controversial themes, The Color Purple became a box office success after its release in 1985. It went on to earn 11 Oscar® nominations.
At the time, the movie's cast was virtually unknown. Oprah made her big-screen debut as Sofia shortly after landing her own talk show, and Whoopi Goldberg, the woman who landed the role of Celie, was performing comedy and one-woman shows when she was discovered. Danny Glover was cast to play Celie's husband, Mister, after acting in just a few movies. These actors and their co-stars—Margaret Avery as Shug Avery, Rae Dawn Chong as Squeak, Akosua Busia as Nettie, Desreta Jackson as young Celie, and Willard Pugh as Sofia's husband, Harpo—all breathed life into gritty, unforgettable characters.
Twenty-five years later, The Color Purple remains a timeless tale of tragedy and triumph, a testament to the power of love and the strength of the human spirit.
Oprah was 28 years old when she first read Alice Walker's award-winning book. And, after she heard it was being made into a movie, she set her sights on landing a role...despite the fact that she'd never acted before. "I just became obsessed with being a part of this movie," she says. "And it was, I believe, divine order, fate, that made it possible."
To this day, Oprah says playing Sofia still ranks as one of the great highlights of her life. "I never had more fun in my life than doing The Color Purple," she says.
Whoopi, on the other hand, says she didn't want the role of Celie at first. "I never made a movie before," she says. "I didn't know how this thing worked, and if I messed it up, I didn't want to get in trouble."
Although Danny Glover had only been in three movies before The Color Purple, he shined in the role of Mister. Oprah describes his performance as "so powerful, really brilliant."
"It's one of the great emotional moments for me in my whole career," Danny says. "It's transformative. The movie itself is transformative. ... It was the beginning of all three of our careers in some sense. The Color Purple was the moment when things began to take off."
Danny says there are still some scenes that are difficult for him to watch. And his grandmother felt the same way. "Somebody showed her The Color Purple when it came out on home video," he says. "She walked out of there so mad, and she said: 'That boy know he was raised better than that. I'm gonna get a switch.' She was around 92 then."
One scene that isn't hard for Danny to watch is the lively dinner scene, which he says is one of his favorites. The Color Purple cast and crew worked six days a week, but on their night off, he says they went out on the town. The night before they were scheduled to start shooting the dinner scene was no exception. "We had all been partying," he says. "And we came there, I mean, just wasted."
That morning, Danny says Adolph Caesar, the actor who played his father, even forgot his teeth in his hotel room. "Steven [Spielberg] was kind of saying, 'What is going on here?'" Danny says.
This memorable shoot lasted three days. "By the end of the three days, the ham had gone sour," Oprah says. "We didn't want to look at that food."
What many fans don't know is that the little girl sitting next to Oprah at the dinner table is Whoopi's real-life daughter, Alexandrea Martin, who was just 11 years old at the time. Oprah also reveals that she ad-libbed her lines in this scene. "Steven said to me, 'Just tell Miss Celie how you felt when you saw her in the store,'" she says. "I was just sort of making that up."
Then, on the final day of the dinner shoot, Oprah says something happened that she'll never forget. "This was my first time I'd ever acted, and I was so unsure of myself and everything. Whoopi came over, and she gave me a hug," she says. "And she said, 'Today, you became an actress.'"
Willard, who played Oprah's onscreen husband, still remembers the day he and Oprah were offered roles in The Color Purple. He says they were sitting in Steven's office when they got the news.
"I'd auditioned with everybody—Whoopi, Danny, Rae Dawn—but I hadn't got the job," Willard says. "Then, we go and have a meeting. [Steven] paused and said, 'Well, Oprah, Willard—what we waiting on?' Then, he said, 'You got the job.'"
They were so excited, Oprah says they jumped up and knocked over the miniature space shuttles Steven had on his desk.
Along with Whoopi and Oprah, The Color Purple was also Desreta's big-screen debut. The film's casting director, Reuben Cannon, was searching for actors at an open casting call when he spotted Desreta. "I passed Reuben Cannon, and he came to me like: 'You, come here. Turn around,'" Desreta says. "I turned around. He was, like, 'Can you come back tonight?'"
Oprah says she remembers how strict Reuben was with the inexperienced cast. "I have some Reuben stories myself," Oprah says. "He was very tough on all of us."
Reuben, however, gave Margaret a big break. Originally, the producers wanted Tina Turner to play the role of Shug Avery, but Tina passed. "I owe it to Tina for turning it down and Reuben Cannon for giving me the opportunity to read," Margaret says. "Thank you, Reuben."
Rae Dawn, the daughter of actor Tommy Chong, was one of the film's only experienced actors. Prior to The Color Purple, Rae Dawn acted in films like Quest for Fire, but she still had to audition like the others. "I auditioned quite a bit; I auditioned about 25,000 times," she says with a smile. "I kind of went straight to Spielberg."
Even though her name was on the movie poster—unlike Oprah—Rae Dawn says she never felt like a star. "Now that I'm a lesser big star, I really don't remember being a big star," she says.
Akosua Busia may not have been a recognizable actress when she was cast as Nettie, but she's well known in Ghana, her native country. There, Akosua is a real Ghanaian princess!
At first, Reuben considered Akosua for a role in another film, but he felt she was too young. "He wouldn't let me read, and I was begging," Akosua says.
Then, a few days later, Reuben called and asked Akosua to read Alice Walker's book. "I read it all night," she says. Akosua says she knew someone named Whoopi had the part of Celie, so she auditioned for another role and got it!
Quincy Jones, the film's executive producer and composer, is the man who suggested that an unknown named Oprah Winfrey play the role of Sofia. When Quincy first saw Oprah, she was hosting a show called A.M. Chicago with "my bad Jheri curl," she says.
"How did you know that this could become a film?" Oprah asks Quincy. "Because, as Whoopi and I were saying, there was nothing like this ever on the screen."
"Here," he says, as he points to his heart.
At first, Quincy says no one thought he'd convince Steven to direct The Color Purple. "Everybody in town was saying, 'Quincy Jones is out of his mind,'" he says. "He thinks he's going to get the greatest director in the world on his first movie, and he's going to do a black movie before Schindler's List. That's when I found the power of being underestimated."
Producing and writing the music for The Color Purple was like "going to heaven" for Quincy. "From being a little raggedy kid here [in Chicago] in 1933—I was born here in the hard-core ghetto—and to be here on this stage is like beyond belief," he says.
The only cast member who wasn't able to make it to the reunion is Adolph Caesar, who passed away in 1986.
"Thanks to all of my Color Purple family, my husband Harpo," Oprah says.
"Only husband you ever had," Willard says with a smile.
Although Steven couldn't be in Chicago with Quincy and the cast of The Color Purple, he reminisces about making the film from his office. In this room, Steven points out the very couch Oprah and Willard were sitting on when he told them they had the parts!
"I can't believe it's been 25 years," he says. "I want to say hi to everybody from the cast who made it onto your show. I wish I was there with you."
Steven says he just returned from shooting the film War Horse, which is why he couldn't make it to the reunion. "I am an exhausted war horse right now, but I couldn't at least turn to the camera and just say, 'I love all of you,'" he says. "This was my first grown-up movie. Even though we were all kids together, what came out the other end is something that I think we'll be proud of for the rest of our lives. I can't imagine my life today without The Color Purple having been a part of it."