Fantasia Barrino, 39, is speaking via video call from Los Angeles and initially hesitated to show her face. However, she quickly changed her mind, remarking on the rudeness of not showing her face. Originally from High Point, North Carolina, Barrino gained fame in the US as a teenage single mother who won American Idol two decades ago. Now, she is making a name for herself globally by portraying Celie in the new film adaptation of The Color Purple, which is produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. With a rags-to-riches story like hers, one may expect her to have an air of showbiz arrogance, but in reality, she is incredibly warm and down-to-earth. In her own words, “I’m a Cancer, so I believe in showing love, giving hugs, and taking care of everyone.”
It is hard to think of a story that more encourages compassion than The Color Purple. Alice Walker’s prize-winning epic novel, published in 1982, is the story of downtrodden women surviving the first half of the 20th century in rural Georgia. It starts with rape, incest and teenage pregnancy and moves through loss, estrangement, domestic violence and the brutality of a racist state. It is the last thing you might imagine setting to music, except that the way it resolves – complicated, painful, unvarnished, harmonious – is musical.
The text expresses the idea that the present moment feels more current and vibrant compared to when the film was first released. This is due in part to the fact that many people at the time refused to acknowledge that racism still existed. Recently, Barrino participated in a Q&A with Winfrey about the film, during which Winfrey asked the cast to describe it in one word. Barrino’s response was “healing,” which surprised Winfrey. However, the cast felt that making the film was a form of healing for them, and Barrino, who had just started therapy at the time, even had to pause it because she found the experience of playing Celie to be healing for her personally.
Barrino has previously portrayed the character of Celie, but this wasn’t her first time. In fact, she was only 23 years old when she performed on Broadway. She recalls this experience as her first time attending a Broadway show and being approached by the team to play Celie. At the time, she was taken out to eat and was in disbelief, questioning if they were serious or if something was amiss.
“It was a challenging experience for her. She left school at the young age of 14 and had no formal training. Looking back, she admits she was unsure how to separate herself from the character she played. She found herself constantly embodying Celie, even outside of filming. She struggled with this and considered not returning to the role. However, she is grateful that she did not let fear hold her back from portraying Celie in all her brilliance, strength, wisdom, intelligence, and beauty. As a 23-year-old, she did not fully appreciate the depth of the character she was playing. But now, as a mature woman and mother of three (including a stepson and two grandchildren through her husband, entrepreneur Kendall Taylor), she has gained a new perspective on Celie and herself.”
There has been some controversy surrounding the musical. The cast has raised concerns about not receiving proper treatment, such as lack of catering, transportation, and low pay. This has led to speculation that the film, which was predominantly made by people of color, was produced with limited resources due to underlying racism. Oprah Winfrey has received the most criticism for this, rather than Steven Spielberg.
Barrino makes an effort to remain neutral: “My experience was different. However, this was my first film and I was thrilled to be working with such talented actors. I am a proud southern woman and I have been through a lot in my life. I understand that not everything in life is easy. Oprah was always there with us, supporting us from the background. Overall, we had a wonderful time and I definitely indulged in some delicious food, resulting in weight gain.”
In the film adaptation of the book released in 1985, Whoopi Goldberg portrayed the character of Celie. Barrino’s mother did not allow her to watch the film when she was young due to its emotional weight, but she found a way to watch it regardless. Barrino recalls, “It was the first time I saw myself represented on screen and heard stories that resonated with me.” When asked if she felt pressure to live up to Goldberg’s performance, Barrino responds, “No, Goldberg’s portrayal was so masterful that it cannot be replicated.”
It is common to discuss the impact of a gospel church upbringing on one’s singing voice, but less common to recognize its influence on spoken rhythm. Barrino speaks with a poetic conciseness that is reminiscent of declaring independence. When asked about her marriage to Taylor in 2015, she reveals, “We tied the knot after just three weeks, before even being intimate. Want to know how I knew he was the right one? Brace yourself.”
Yes, but only after we have provided the background information.
Barrino was born into an intensely musical family: her uncles were the Barrino Brothers, a 70s R&B band; her cousins are K-Ci and JoJo, also an R&B duo. They were industrious, but not rich – she remembers eating grits (a kind of maize porridge) every day for a week, practising by candlelight because the lights had gone off – and she missed a lot of school.
Her grandmother had had her first child at 17 and felt it snuffed out her dreams of musical success; the same thing happened to her mother, to whom Barrino is very close. “Singing was everything in our home, right? The joy that music brought us, it was like a drug. You know, I didn’t come from a rich family. But I did have two parents who made sure we had. Me and my brothers laugh now because, like, those was good days – candles lit.”
Although singing was a common occurrence in her family, her talent for it was exceptional even at the young age of five. She has a complicated relationship with her father, whom she describes as the best it can be at the moment. He had a lot at stake, possibly everything, when it came to her musical success. She acknowledges that sometimes people may support her for personal reasons.
At the age of 14, she experienced sexual assault at school and left. She speaks about this and other instances of violence in general without hiding any details or dwelling on them. Her grandmother used to say that people would attempt to strip away one’s spirit. She also shares that she was in multiple abusive relationships, but realizes that it was because she did not have self-love at the time. At 16, she became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Zion, at 17. This could have been the end of her dreams, but American Idol changed her path.
Upon listening to Barrino’s initial auditions, her voice is undeniably striking. It exudes a sense of maturity and control, leaving one in awe. It is difficult to fathom that she is only 19 years old, with a two-year-old child and no financial stability. She had to memorize the lyrics to Summertime because she lacked confidence in her ability to read them in the moment. Despite this, her vocals are reminiscent of a legendary performer, but never with a hint of imitation. According to Barrino, her voice has a “grit” that embodies pain, truth, and honesty. This attraction to raw authenticity has been ingrained in her since childhood, as she would repeatedly listen to Aretha Franklin’s music.
Prior to her rendition of Summertime, the American Idol staff offered her some advice. She had been receiving criticism online. They suggested, “You may want to refrain from mentioning your status as a young mother and your schooling situation.” Her emotional response was to retreat to the bathroom and cry. She struggled with the decision to either alter her identity, which would feel uncomfortable, or to stand firm and defy their expectations.
In the end, 65 million individuals cast their votes in support of her. Unexpectedly, Simon Cowell emerged as a hero in this tale by declaring Barrino as the greatest contestant the show had ever seen (this was back in 2004, even though there had been numerous contestants before). Unfortunately, Zion was too young to fully comprehend the significance of the situation. Eventually, as Barrino launched her own matte lipstick line and even had her name on a pair of jeans, she finally realized that she had become a celebrity. However, she also desired for me to be at home more often.
Two years after her appearance on American Idol, Barrino wrote a memoir titled “Life Is Not a Fairytale,” which was later made into a TV movie starring her. Despite her incredible singing voice, her speaking voice remained shy and high, almost as if she feared criticism. She landed a role in the Broadway production of The Color Purple a year later. While she faced many challenges and shed many tears, her lack of understanding about the industry almost resulted in her losing her home in 2009. Barrino reflects on the story of Job from the Bible, finding solace in his unwavering faith in God even amidst trials and tribulations.
In 2011, she received a Grammy award and in 2014, she returned to Broadway with the musical After Midnight, which is where her relationship with Taylor began. During a seven-month period, she refrained from dating and focused on loving and taking care of herself. She even symbolically put a ring on her own finger and cut out television from her life, only listening to jazz music. Interestingly, during this time, she received a lot of attention and offers to date.
At that time, she created a list for God, but also wrote it out on index cards for practicality. The list outlined what she desired in a partner: no temptation or flattery, but rather someone who would ignite her in a unique manner. She believed that everything happens for a purpose, and in this case, it led her to meet her husband, who had a love for reading and bookshelves scattered throughout their home.
The issue of literacy comes up frequently in her life – the way she acquired it, and the shame she faced when she showed any insecurities about it in public. She traded her education for her father’s help, as she explains: “My father was a clever and wise man, who believed that we could improve our situation if we could just produce one hit song or get a record label to notice us. That became our main focus. As a result, I became a lazy and lax reader. It’s ironic that I ended up marrying a man who loves to read.”
After her memoir was released, her father filed a lawsuit against her for $10 million. Despite only mentioning that he prioritized music over her education, her words were not particularly harsh.
However, referring to her as the epitome of the American dream is complex. She undoubtedly rose above violence and poverty in her youth through determination and hard work. Yet, if one must possess exceptional talent to overcome such obstacles, it cannot be considered a shared dream, but rather an illusion.
Barrino has a different interpretation of the dream, viewing it as a reflection of one’s ability to find contentment. She has made the choice to be satisfied with her current position and possessions. Even if she never makes another movie or receives another award, she is grateful for the blessings of waking up each day.
This publication was revised on January 18, 2024. The film “The Color Purple” is not currently being shown in UK theaters, as previously stated. It is scheduled to be released on January 26.
The film “The Color Purple” will be showing in cinemas across the UK starting from January 26th.