Things took a turn for the worse one morning in May. In 2016, Danielle Brooks was excelling in every way imaginable. After gaining recognition from her role in the groundbreaking prison drama Orange is the New Black, she was now starring on Broadway in The Color Purple. On this particular day, she was scheduled to appear on breakfast television with the rest of the cast to perform and announce the Tony nominations. However, she found herself unable to leave her house due to nerves weighing her down. Instead, she watched the nominations from home and couldn’t help but shed tears when her name was called. Despite having performed countless times before, that night while singing the powerful song “Hell No” – “All my life I had to fight! But if a man raise his hand, Hell no” – she realized she was singing off-key.
She recalls, “I had just received a Tony nomination. Everyone was cheering for me, but I felt like a failure. I was so embarrassed that I went back to my dressing room and started crying. I thought, ‘I can’t handle this. I just… can’t.'” The following night, she decided to skip the show and see her therapist instead. “I told her, ‘I don’t think I can go through with it.'” It took some effort, but she eventually returned to the stage, with the help of one particular song: Hell No. “I found strength through my character – thank goodness I was playing Sofia, who is a woman who doesn’t care about others’ opinions.” This role was also portrayed by Oprah Winfrey in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel. Winfrey described the character as the embodiment of self-empowerment.
According to Brooks, singing “Hell No” became an anthem for her as she is determined to live confidently and independently. The song helped her overcome her fears, imposter syndrome, and self-doubt. Despite facing challenges, she persevered and landed a lead role in the movie adaptation of the musical. Recently, she was nominated for a Golden Globe, which she sees as a validation of her talent and growth. As she has become more self-aware and confident in her abilities, she no longer relies on external validation. When she heard about her nomination, she felt a sense of peace and fulfillment. Now, she is happily relaxing in a New York hotel room, wearing a vest and no makeup, with spotty internet connection. She sees this as a sign of her success and hard work paying off.
It has been a feeling of returning home for Brooks, a series of arrivals that have come full circle. Now at 34 years old, she recalls how “The Color Purple” changed her life when she first saw it at 15. Coming from a small town in South Carolina where her options for success were limited, this performance opened her eyes to new possibilities. She vividly remembers seeing people on stage who looked like her and felt a spiritual connection to the work. With both of her parents involved in the church, this experience helped her realize her own potential and she went on to attend a performing arts high school and then Juilliard. However, after graduation, she struggled to find roles that truly reflected her and her identity. She was often typecast as the “sassy Black woman” or “big mamma” and struggled with fitting into the industry. Despite initial concerns about nudity, she ultimately took on the role in “Orange is the New Black” and is grateful for the opportunities it has brought her.
Brooks consistently strikes a delicate balance of humor, anger, and sadness in her performances. As Taystee, she served as the heart of OITNB, always cheerful and optimistic despite a life that had been filled with violence and a constant cycle of incarceration. Brooks quickly became the standout star of the show, with her character’s storylines mirroring real-life events. Unfortunately, after seven seasons of hope, Taystee’s story did not end with the justice she deserved, highlighting the flaws of America’s criminal justice system.
Part of what made her realize the overlap between her work and activism was taking on this mindset. “Working on projects like The Color Purple, where we explore the core elements of humanity such as forgiveness, love, resilience, and radical womanhood – that holds great power. That’s why there are attempts to ban movies and books, because of the impact we can have.” What was the lesson she learned from the story? “It showed me that you can overcome oppression, find redemption, and correct past mistakes. You have the strength within yourself to be your own hero and lead your own story.”
In addition to the opportunity to express her true self without conforming to societal beauty standards, Orange Is the New Black was a platform for Brooks to shed light on the flaws of the prison system. The show tackled important issues such as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement, giving a voice to marginalized communities. Brooks took it a step further by launching the Poussey Washington Fund, which supports incarcerated women and is a source of pride and motivation for her. While she has no political aspirations, she uses her art as a means of activism, breaking barriers for people who look like her in the entertainment industry. This includes her recent role as an action hero in Peacemaker, making her the first plus-size Black woman to play such a role. She recalls growing up watching Queen Latifah in romantic comedies and feeling grateful for representation, hoping to one day have the same opportunity. This, too, is important work.
When she first joined the cast of the musical revival of The Color Purple, she met Oprah Winfrey, who was one of the producers. However, she was too shy to approach Winfrey and was afraid of giving the impression that she wanted something from her. Instead, she stayed in the background and only waved back when Winfrey acknowledged her. It wasn’t until Winfrey surprised her on a Zoom call to offer her a role in the movie that the two finally connected and formed a mentoring relationship. Brooks is grateful for this mentorship and talks about it with excitement and shyness. She recalls feeling that her life was about to change during a two-hour phone call with Winfrey. Despite being told that filling Winfrey’s shoes would be a daunting task, Brooks appreciates that Winfrey allowed her to make the role her own. She was able to bring her authentic self to the role because Winfrey personally passed the baton to her.
Oprah Winfrey suggested that Brooks recall a quote from Maya Angelou, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” This quote struck a chord with Brooks. Winfrey explained that the more specific a story is, the more relatable it becomes to a wider audience. The themes of abuse, loss, fears, and oppression are not limited to people of color, but can be found in everyone’s story.
In 2019, she and her spouse Dennis Gelin welcomed a daughter, Freeya. They chose this name to serve as a constant reminder that she is free in this world. It is also a personal reminder for herself to prioritize maintaining her own freedom every day. They relocated from New York to Georgia in order to live a simpler lifestyle and to remind themselves that they do not have to conform to the expectations of the entertainment industry. When asked about her definition of freedom, she explained, “It means having the ability to move freely and make choices without worrying about others’ opinions. True freedom is found in loving others and oneself.”
How has the impact of the industry and her relationship with it affected her? She reflects and then continues, “At times, the industry silences voices of people of color. Every few years, we may see a film like The Color Purple, Black Panther, or Hidden Figures. However, I desire consistency in our stories being shared and a broader representation.” On a personal level, she adds, “I want to challenge the European standards of beauty. We are unjust to those who are different. The industry needs to break away from this notion that a movie can only be successful if the cast fits a certain appearance.” She mentions that Orange is the New Black disproved this idea. “We were relatable in our prison uniforms and natural hair. People were drawn to all of our unique stories.”
She has always contemplated the concept of beauty, its boundaries and privileges, and how to broaden its definition. “I haven’t always viewed myself as beautiful – I had to pretend. I know this is largely due to the industry – everywhere I turn, the world has been telling me that I’m not attractive enough.” A shift occurred when she saw herself featured on a billboard in Times Square, modeling for the American clothing company Lane Bryant. Suddenly, she felt that the possibilities were endless. “I now see the beauty in myself. When you have a child and your body changes, there is a lot of internal work you must do to accept it. Bringing life into this world was one of the most amazing things I could have done. So why would I criticize my body for gaining more stretch marks and inches around my waist? That is so unkind!” She is now interested in using her platform to inspire others to “appreciate people for who they are”.
However, she realizes that each of the roles she has portrayed has contributed to her self-celebration. She specifically mentions her performances as Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer and civil rights activist, in Lena Dunham’s Girls, and in The Color Purple. Reflecting on these roles, she acknowledges how playing Sofia has allowed her to embrace her power and confidently live in it without feeling the need to fake it until she succeeds. With a serious expression and determined pace, she declares that she no longer has to dim her light or hide her inner talent for anyone. And in an instant, she breaks into laughter.
The Color Purple is released on 26 January
Tish Celestine styled the hair using Design Essentials, Mielle, and Chi products while Keita Moore used Maybelline for The Only Agency for makeup. Sarah Keum handled digitech, Jacob Polcyn-Evans was the first assistant, and Maxim Diaz Raczynski was the second assistant. Jill Lewis did the retouching and Kelly Augustine assisted with styling.