Feature image by Cindy Ord for SiriusXM via Getty Images
Imagine you’re a Black artist working on a studio musical with a large Black ensemble and a massive ninety-million-dollar budget. Doesn’t that sound exemplary, if not revolutionary? It’s hardly been done since The Wiz. But here’s the kicker: The studio expects you to get into a production car and drive yourself to set. Early in the day or late at night, you must go vroom-vroom in your car no matter how much the soles on your feet are hurting from your many laborious hours singing and dancing.
That’s, unfortunately, what The Color Purple ensemble were expected to endure, and it leaves me baffled and infuriated that a movie with such a massive price tag didn’t give its cast better conditions for a set more conducive to their creative work.
Earlier this month, following her courageous speech about her unfair pay wages for her roles post-Empire, cast member Taraji P. Henson, who plays Shug Avery, sat down with The New York Times and publicly discussed the working conditions she and her co-stars experienced during production. Henson revealed the production gave them rental cars to drive to set. “I can’t drive myself to set in Atlanta,” Henson shared. “This is insurance liability. It’s dangerous. Now they robbing people. What do I look like, taking myself to work by myself in a rental car?” Mind you, production shoots can go over eight to twelve or even sixteen hours a day. For a film with rigorous choreography in numerous numbers, I can’t stop thinking about her poor soles having to hit the pedal after hitting those beats. “Can I get a driver or security to take me?'” I’m not asking for the moon,” she continued. “They’re like, ‘Well, if we do it for you, we got to do it for everybody.’ Well, do it for everybody! It’s stuff like that, stuff I shouldn’t have to fight for.”
Shortly after, Academy Award Nominee Danielle Brooks voiced concerns about her experience at an awards conversation panel. She revealed the cast initially had no dressing rooms nor trailers during filming. “I remember when we first came in, and we were doing rehearsal, and they put us all in the same space, and we didn’t have our own dressing rooms at the time,” she said, adding how they also weren’t given food. At the behest of Oprah, one of the film’s other producers — Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders, or Quincy Jones — ensured those issues were resolved. Winfrey had the power to step in, but responsibilities regarding the budget are beyond her and her fellow producers at that level. Winfrey retorted in that interview, “I’m not in charge of the budget.”
Winfrey is right. Oprah and the other high level producers aren’t in charge of budget details. Winfrey, Spielberg, Sanders, and Jones’ jobs were to assemble the right crew to bring the musical version to life and get funding from the parent studio. If there’s anything they are possibly at fault for, it’s not the minutiae of money allocation, but in who they hired to take on that responsibility — or who they hired to hire who to take on that responsibility.
The Color Purple already had the unfair advantage of being commissioned by a studio that had gone through a hell of a merger preceding its development announcement. It wasn’t until August 2020, the peak pandemic era, that the pre-production process began with Blitz Bazawule signing on as director following his work on Black is King. At that time, Toby Emmerich was acting chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. Then, as time has told, Discovery bought out the Warner Bros. brand from AT&T, with the now David Zaslav-owned Warner Bros. Discovery starting its operations in April 2022 — a few weeks after the film went into production in Atlanta. As Emmerich stepped back in June 2022 amidst principal photography, MGM’s Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy swooped in to take his reins.
Winfrey, Jones, and Spielberg immediately had to go to the new guards for financial assistance to ensure the film looked as vibrant as Bazawule’s ambitions. They also had to answer to ignorant and lofty expectations from some unnamed higher-ups who wanted Rihanna and Beyonce to contribute to the film given the ballooning budget, to which Winfrey bluntly responded that it wasn’t going to happen. In a Hollywood Reporter piece on the film’s production, Winfrey expressed, “I would have to say that [Warner Bros. co-chairs] Pam [Abdy] and Mike De Luca got it from the first time they saw the film and understood that they heard me and heard Steven and heard the team when we said, ‘This is the reason why this has to be done.’ You have to give us more money to do this because this is a cultural manifesto in a way for our community, and it deserves to have the support that’s needed to make it what it needs to be.”
90 million dollars for a budget is a reasonable yet hefty price tag for a musical compared to other musical features in recent memory — closing out slightly below Spielberg’s West Side Story $100 mil and above In the Heights’ $55 mil. However, according to the Motion Picture Association, The Color Purple production contributed over $74.2 Million of its budget to the professionals and artists working in Georgia. The report states, “Over 81 days of filming around Greater Atlanta and Savannah, The Color Purple contributed over $74.2 million in direct spending to the local economy, including payments to the more than 2,500 local Georgian cast and crew hired for the production.”
When it comes to running a production set, the job of where the budget goes is delegated to a line producer or a unit production manager. Run the World‘s showrunner Rachelle Williams-BenAry said it best in a tweet, “Atp who was the Line Producer/UPM on The Color Purple cuz it’s their job to negotiate the trailers, hire PAs, get teamsters/PAs to drive talent, oversee production issues.” Given the film was primarily set in one location, all of its budget handlings was in the hands of one Dominic Cancilla, whose experience has wavered between low-budget B-action movies like Machete and Get the Gringo and television with shows like Step Up: High Water. While the latter proves Cancilla’s experience with musicals, it’s clear he does not have experience with a movie of this scale. So the question becomes: Who hired this man?
All the responsibility, ranging from the lack of drivers and trailers for the cast to food for the crew, boils down to Cancilla and anyone overseeing Cancilla who made the conditions on The Color Purple so undesirable that Winfrey had to step in.
According to the MPA budget breakdown piece, what’s frustrating about this ordeal is that $3.67 million was spent on transportation and car rentals and $1.2 million on local catering for cast and crew. How long did Winfrey take to intervene and use the budget on her crew’s hospitality and care? Where did a good amount of that money go? It surely wasn’t the main cast’s service.
As much as I would love to point my fingers at Zaslav — who has been responsible for the cancellation and mistreatment of many queer and Black shows and movies — the blame seems to lie primarily with the line producer, his immediate superiors, and his team. Especially if Winfrey’s claim that the new executives helped provide a bigger film production budget is believed.
If the budget reports are factual and if that amount of money was simply mishandled by Cancilla, several questions are raised. Who hired Cancilla? Why was he allowed to stay in the position? And, most importantly, why did the responsibility fall on talent themselves to ask for better treatment?
This is a near triple digit musical and some of the best actresses working today received worse accommodations than many indies. To paraphrase Henson, they weren’t asking for the moon. They were asking for industry standard.