How Director Blitz Bazawule Went From a Beyoncé Film to ‘The Color Purple’ | Mint

How Director Blitz Bazawule Went From a Beyoncé Film to ‘The Color Purple’

‘As someone who had emigrated, I got what it was like to oscillate between two worlds,’ Bazawule says of the story of ‘The Color Purple.’
‘As someone who had emigrated, I got what it was like to oscillate between two worlds,’ Bazawule says of the story of ‘The Color Purple.’

Summary

Backed by producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, the Ghanaian filmmaker takes on the iconic story.

WHEN PRODUCERS were looking for a director to steer a remake of “The Color Purple"—a touchstone American story already told in a Pulitzer-winning novel, an iconic Steven Spielberg movie and a Tony-awarded musical—the name Blitz Bazawule barely made the list.

The 41-year-old filmmaker, musician, novelist and artist from Ghana was the last and least known of the 10 candidates to interview with Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and other producers. In a Zoom meeting in August 2020, Bazawule pitched a retelling of the rural tale on a grand scale. He hit them with music samples, vivid color palettes, descriptions of magical realism and storyboard sketches he had drawn himself.

Then Bazawule laid out his vision for a performance by the free-spirit jazz singer Shug Avery that would make a 1920s juke joint feel like a Beyoncé concert. “That’s when I saw them light up," he recalls. “Like, ‘Well, if he could pull that off, we may have a movie.’"

His pitch was “visual magic," Spielberg says in an email. “It made the choice to engage him on this the easiest choice we made when the project got underway."

Beyoncé wasn’t just a reference for Bazawule—she was a reason he was in the room. He co-directed the singer’s “Black Is King," a feature-length visual album that had dropped less than a month before his “Color Purple" meeting. Bazawule’s stately imagery of Zulu people had helped turn a “Lion King" tie-in into a regal meditation on African identity.

“The Color Purple" arrives on Christmas Day with a stacked cast including Fantasia Barrino, Colman Domingo and Taraji P. Henson. It’s built around songs from the Broadway show but expands the story’s musical DNA with new layers of blues, jazz and the African rhythms Bazawule grew up with. The director amplified themes of Black expression and sisterhood, and galvanized cast and crew with “the responsibility to bring this story into the now," says Fatima Robinson, the film’s choreographer.

At Bazawule’s home in Atlanta, which he shares with his 14-year-old son, he recently sifted through a stack of illustrations he made when beginning “The Color People." The director had drawn Henson as Shug, swaddled in fur, with annotations including, “use red often as color of power which she will pass to Celie," the character played by Fantasia.

Bazawule’s impulse to reach for pen and paper goes back to a childhood spent drawing in Accra, Ghana’s capital, where he was born Samuel Bazawule. He sponged up music—feisty Ghanaian highlife and imported Public Enemy CDs—and started rapping himself.

He left Ghana to attend Kent State University in Ohio. He recalls the immigrant urge to assimilate into American culture, but his rapping helped him assert his place in the African diaspora. “The real question," he says, “is what do you leave behind and what do you bring along?"

He got his nickname in college as a rapper who blitzed tracks with lyrical velocity. After he graduated in 2005, his music career solidified as he recorded and toured under the name Blitz the Ambassador.

Bazawule started making short films as an outgrowth of his drawing and painting, and as visual companion pieces to his albums. He scaled up with “The Burial of Kojo," his debut narrative feature, which he wrote, directed and helped finance for about $40,000. Released in 2018, the film follows a young Ghanaian girl on a dreamlike quest.

It was picked up by filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s production company, which licensed it to Netflix. Beyoncé found it in her search for filmmakers from the African continent to visually translate music she had made for “The Lion King."

Bazawule’s introduction to “The Color Purple" was Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, which he read in college. He identified with Walker’s double narrative: Celie in Georgia, oppressed under her husband, Mister; her sister Nettie, journeying as a missionary through Senegal and Liberia. “As someone who had emigrated, I got what it was like to oscillate between two worlds," he says.

“The Color Purple" first jumped to the big screen with Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation, a critical and commercial hit that earned 11 Oscar nominations, including a best supporting actress nod for Winfrey’s searing big-screen debut as Sofia. Nearly 40 years later, the movie still casts a big shadow.

“I encouraged Blitz to find his own voice as I had to find mine when I took on such a powerful book," Spielberg says.

Bazawule’s “Color Purple" opens with the hypnotic rhythm of hoofbeats as Domingo’s Mister plays a banjo riff on horseback. The director said he wanted music to seep from the film’s environment, not just when characters break into song.

He wrote a new song for Corey Hawkins, who plays Mister’s son Harpo. While building a home on a dock in a swamp for his love Sofia (now played by an incandescent Danielle Brooks), Harpo and friends sing and dance as they turn construction into percussion with their hammers, saws and boots on wood.

Robinson, a respected hip-hop choreographer, designed their moves around a beat Bazawule made. She said the filmmaker’s artistic range gave him a common language with his “Color Purple" collaborators: “Not many directors can have conversations like that about how music and choreography helps move the story forward."

Bazawule, whose novel, “The Scent of Burnt Flowers," is in development as a TV series for FX, knows people are skeptical of creators who flit among mediums. But he says each music, film or writing project refreshes him for the next. He’s already on to his next undertaking: a solo art show planned for next year.

In the sun room that doubles as his art studio in his Atlanta home, one freshly completed acrylic painting features black-and-white portraits of people from Ghana superimposed on environments that pop with color.

Propped against a wall is another canvas, measuring 6 feet by 9 feet, larger than any he has painted before. For now, the canvas is blank, but it won’t stay that way. “I’m expanding," he says.

Write to John Jurgensen at John.Jurgensen@wsj.com

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