When director Blitz Bazawule decided that Francine Jamison-Tanchuck would be the perfect person to design costumes for his new adaptation of The Color Purple, even he didn't realize exactly how perfect she actually was. "I think he was looking at my body of work and he loved the colors and he loved the style. He just decided, 'I think this would be perfect for you.' I said, 'I think I agree,'" Jamison-Tanchuck laughs. "I don't think he knew at first."
With decades of experience, the veteran designer is behind the costumes of films such as Glory (1989) and One Night in Miami... (2020), but what Bazawule didn't realize is that one of her earliest jobs was working on Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985). "My job was to assist Aggie Rodgers, who is a wonderful designer and friend and a mentor of mine," explains Jamison-Tanchuck. "I would assist her in fittings, but my main job was to go into costume houses and pull vintage outfits and dress the day players."
Rodgers received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design for her work on that film, while Jamison-Tanchuck went on to become a respected costume designer in her own right. Never did she imagine that, nearly 40 years later, she'd have the chance to return to The Color Purple.
"It was such an incredible production. How could anyone begin to try and make something else?" she remembers thinking. But Alice Walker's book and Spielberg's film served as the inspiration for a Tony-winning Broadway musical, and Bazawule now brings that iteration of The Color Purple to the big screen. "It's come back again full circle," Jamison-Tanchuck tells A.frame.
A.frame: Do you have a standout memory from your time working on 1985's The Color Purple?
Yes, I have an incredible memory of one particular scene, in which Shug and the juke joint people converged on the church, singing Quincy Jones' beautiful song ["Maybe God Is Tryin' To Tell You Somethin'"]. There were so many people in the church that it was breaking the floors. The whole church was shaking, and everyone had to come out so Michael Riva, who was the production designer at the time, could fix the floors. Steven Spielberg, it seemed like he was just having a wonderful time, because he did several takes of it and all of us were singing the song. I went home that night, and I couldn't get that song out of my head. It was amazing. It was just absolutely beautiful. And a wonderful, wonderful film experience to have.
This movie is being called 'a bold new take on the beloved classic.' What were your early conversations with Blitz about the sartorial vision for this version of The Color Purple?
We knew we had to be in a historical framework, but did not want it to get so boxed in that it was about trying to keep in the period of the costumes, rather than tell the story, rather than having something nice and fresh or interesting for 2023 audience, and that they can relate to as well. Blitz is very much about color. I mean, look at his previous films. He is such an incredible genius with color, so to collaborate with him on that and to see how each era could have its own particular color but still keep in the framework of where we are in that period and also how it is going to reflect the movement of the actors, the dancers, the background. Everything had to gel together. In the very beginning, we had Zoom meetings, Blitz, myself, Paul Austerberry, Dan [Laustsen]; we were in the Zoom meetings together trying to decide, how do we maneuver through this iconic, incredible film that we have been given the opportunity to redo and tell a different story? Well, the same story, but in a different way.
Can you talk about the specifics of the color stories you chose for each decade? Because the color choices are so specific in the movie, and especially how and when you introduce purple.
Blitz and I decide that in the very beginning, we would see young Celie and young Nettie in those beautiful, simple, pure white cotton dresses that they're wearing when they're running on the beach. I loved that idea. From there, we're going through time to 1910, and we opened with the church people. That's spring-summer, so the pastel colors and the light colors and the cottons really worked there. What was so interesting is that Blitz wanted to have a choir robe. I said, 'Well, that's pushing the period a little bit, because robes really didn't come in like that until much later.' Blitz says, 'Yeah, I know, but let's have a choir robe!' [Laughs] I said, 'You know what? Let's do it.' We came up with this fabulous robe that just, it worked. Who would've thought? A choir robe in 1910? Why not?
It was going through all the eras, and in 1935, showing how Celie was finally coming into herself. She was gaining her strength, and that was the time to introduce purple in some of her clothing. That's another really great thing that Blitz and I decided to do there. And her shop was, I think, the icing on the cake. I thought, 'Let's just go for it!' It's all these different fabrics, and I'm thinking, 'Maybe I'm pushing the era a little bit in the '40s, but hey! Why not? Let's just do it!'
Shug really owns the color red. Her performance look is evocative of what Margaret Avery wore but dialed up to eleven. What was your approach to that look?
I said to Aggie, my mentor, I said, 'Aggie, I'm going to borrow your design of the pearls around that headdress.' And she said, 'Oh, go for it, honey!' We started with a base of a headdress and adding more ostrich, and more pearls, and more everything so it can just splash. When Shug entered on the barge, when she was coming in on the boat with those guys, she had to really stand out. I wanted to lengthen the slit up the side. I mean, I'm going for it a little bit, but I also had research to show the entertainers of the early and mid '20s, they were nearly nude! So, if I was putting slits up almost to her hip, who cared! It gave her enough room and movement to do the choreography. And I wanted the dress to have beading as fringe. It wasn't cotton fringe. It was really small seed beads that acted as the fringe, so they could move even more with her. But because of all these beads and sequin and stones, there was triples on that dress, just in case something went completely crazy. So, that was just a moment, just a really wonderful moment.
That's a costume that could wear an actor, but not when you have Taraji.
Oh, no! And the weight of it. I said, 'Oh, Taraji, this is pretty heavy.' She says, 'I've worn things heavier than that.' [Laughs] She just is the quintessential Shug, really. I mean, Margaret Avery definitely was, but something about Taraji in 2023. Hats off to both of those ladies. Shug didn't define them; they defined that character, and defined her so, so very well.
The costumes in the last scene of the movie are so striking, because everyone is dressed in whites and cream but each look is distinct and has its own story woven into it. Does a scene like that end up being one of the biggest challenges for you?
In a way, because I'm sticking to a certain color and certain neutrals that have to work with everyone. Blitz and I decided to end in white, and I thought it was great. We started with white, we're ending with white. Celie's come full circle, and now she feels that genuine love and purity of her family. We felt that that was an ending moment. Also, it was showing off the colors in her quilt. It really had all of those particular tools and things about it that we just wanted to show.
Colman Domingo in those pants is so emotional. But the pants are so ridiculous! And he pulls them off!
I mean, totally ridiculous! Blitz had said, 'Maybe we can go scaly or something that is really off and really crazy.' Okay... Let me work on that. And you know what? I ended up making another pair that was a cow print. That was hilarious as well. Colman is such a handsome man. You almost can't even make him look ridiculous. [Laughs] I said, 'Colman, you can start a new style here. You actually look really good in these pants. They don't look ridiculous on you.' But what I did is I had them a little shorter in length, because of the '40s, so it made them a little kind of weird or whatever.
What was it like seeing the movie for the first time and seeing your work in it? Did it feel like a full circle moment for you?
There was a special screening for the department heads, for myself and the wonderful head of makeup, Carol Rasheed, and Lawrence Davis, who was head of the hair department. We were able to have a screening here in Atlanta. I have to say, we just remember so much work, but looking at the screen, it was so worth it. I just thought, 'Blitz is a genius. He truly is a genius.' It all just worked. It all came together so beautifully. I'm just so happy for the cast and all of us, really, that were part of it. And a shoutout to my wonderful costume department: The costume supervisor, Aissatou Parks; and Carl Ulysses Bowen, who was head of the tailor shop; and my assistant costume designers, Dan Lester and Rashad Corey — all of these wonderful people who helped this come to the screen, and especially in the time we had in order to do it. But I look back and I say, by the grace of God, we did it.
Maybe in another 40 years, someone will be interviewing one of your assistants about the next version of The Color Purple.
Yes! I'm looking forward to that. You have to keep tabs on Rashad Corey, he is up-and-coming. He is totally on his way, and in fact, he is the same age that I was when I assisted in 1985. How full circle is that?