SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from “The Color Purple,” now playing in theaters.
As “The Color Purple” director Blitz Bazawule and his star-studded cast made their press rounds ahead of the musical movie’s Christmas Day release, they paid a special trip to visit “The View” and Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in the 1985 movie adaptation of Alice Walker’s classic novel.
It’d been nearly 40 years since Goldberg played Celie, an abused and uneducated Southern Black woman whose journey to liberation is at the center of Walker’s tale. Bazawule and stars Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson wanted to give her her flowers.
“’The Color Purple’ is sacred ground. You don’t just show up to it with nothing to offer or nothing to contribute,” Bazawule said, when Goldberg asked why he decided to sign on for the film. “It’s been a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It’s an incredible cinematic classic. And we owe you.” Henson led the studio audience in a standing ovation for Goldberg.
The 1985 film, directed by Steven Spielberg, marked Goldberg’s big screen debut and her performance earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress. She didn’t win the prize, but it was the first step on Goldberg’s journey to become the first Black woman to achieve an EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award).
“We wouldn’t be here without you,” Brooks told Goldberg, who was visibly touched by the praise, as everyone took their seats.
But what the studio audience and viewers watching at home didn’t know was that Goldberg didn’t only inspire the filmmakers behind the latest iteration of “The Color Purple” — she also makes a cameo in the movie.
“We had to be stealthy about her involvement from the beginning. Only key crew were aware that Whoopi was playing the role,” Bazawule tells Variety about keeping the secret until after the film hit theaters. “We also never mentioned her in any press and she remained uncredited for the role.”
The magical moment comes early in the film, when a teenage Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi), who is pregnant with her second child by the man she knows to be her father, goes into labor. Her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) runs to fetch the local midwife — who is played by Goldberg.
“You’re doing just fine, Miss Celie,” Goldberg says — easing the young woman through childbirth. “I just need you to push one more time.”
As she passes the newborn baby boy into the waiting arms of his mother, Goldberg passes the torch to the next generation of Celies. It’s a touching, tasteful cameo that underlines why Walker’s story is timeless and worthy of being told again and again.
The surprise appearance marks yet another way that the 2023 film carries on the legacy of the 1985 movie; it is produced by Spielberg and Quincy Jones, who were behind that adaptation, as well as Oprah Winfrey, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar nod for her performance, plus Scott Sanders, who led production on the Tony-winning Broadway musical adaptation.
“I always knew I wanted a connection between the original cast of ‘The Color Purple’ and the new cast. The obvious person was Whoopi because she’s synonymous with the title,” Bazawule explains, saying that he and screenwriter Marcus Gardley went back and forth about how to best incorporate Goldberg into the story. “We settled on the midwife because of its symbolic meeting.”
Gardley explained the symbolism in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “She’s the one to not only encourage her during the birth, but it’s like she herself gave birth to the role and now we see her passing it down. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes because you see [Goldberg] looking upon [Mpasi] with pride and telling her, ‘You can do it.’”
Writing the perfect role was just the first step. Someone needed to approach Goldberg to play the part, so Bazawule made the call.
“It was probably one of the most nervous calls ever,” he says, looking back on the fateful conversation. “She was warm from the start and then she ended by saying, ‘Blitz, the only way I’m not going to be there is if I get hit by a bus.’ I broke out laughing. It was the best phone call ever.”
Just like filming the cameo itself, the director won’t say when, where or if Goldberg was shown the final cut, but given the warm reception she gave Bazawule and crew during their “View” appearance, one would imagine she’s pleased.
For her part, Winfrey described the cameo as both “a wonderful Easter egg for audiences who have appreciated the film over the years, for the diehards” and “a lovely homage to Whoopi.” She also told the Hollywood Reporter that she declined to make a cameo in the film, worrying it’d be distracting if she’d popped up in the scene where Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and Harpo (Corey Hawkins) get married.
“Also, I just think it’s more special that it’s just Whoopi,” Winfrey said.