- Golden Profiles
A Vessel for Change: Danielle Brooks’ Legacy of Grace, Authenticity, and Unmatched Talent
The 1982 epistolary novel “The Color Purple” by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker summarizes the belief that the color purple is not only synonymous with royalty but a deep purple that seems almost to be black. Enter Academy Award nominee – Brooks, an accomplished artist and actor.
AW: What is your intention with your art?
DB: My intention is to move us forward. Through my work, it’s like opening a window or even a door for people to step in and experience. It’s about fostering empathy for each other’s needs and desires in life so we can care enough to make a difference. When I started with “Orange is the New Black,” I saw the power of art in giving voice to the voiceless, celebrating diversity, and advocating for change. Art can be activism, and I witnessed my counterparts like Laverne Cox and Uzo Aduba eloquently speaking for their communities, inspiring me to use my voice for progress.
AW: When did you first realize you had something unique?
DB: It started with high school; I was 17 and had just gotten into Juilliard. I was asked to do a monologue for some donors for my high school. All of the donors were white, older women. I was terrified to perform Bernie’s monologue from August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” which speaks about the ancestors. I’m thinking, I’m a little black girl about to talk to these white women about ancestors – How are they going to relate to this? And they did. So, I learned the power of being a vessel, an artist whose work travels beyond our skin tone. Further than female, male, gender roles, sexuality. It’s really heart to heart, spirit to spirit, human to human.
AW: How did you foster such a gift?
DB: Well, my initial stages to cultivating that would be church. I kind of always give credit to the church because they’re so interconnected, and that’s where I got my start. They’re both very theatrical, and I say that respectfully because both in theater and church, the goal is to move people, make people feel and leave differently, better than the same way they entered into the space. And that’s what actors are trying to do.
AW: That’s a core memory for you.
DB: I saw how to connect with people from watching my pastor and the choir. I watched singers and the choir move me to tears, and that was something that made my spirit stir. I always remember something the previous president, Joseph W. Polisi of Juilliard, said: “The work doesn’t stop,” so I’ve been doing just that in this industry, learning from my mistakes and getting another opportunity to try differently in another role.
AW: When you think about legacy, what would you like to add to the tapestry of black actors that have come before you and leave to those that come after?
DB: Hattie McDaniel, the first plus-sized, dark-skinned black woman to be the representative and show that we can break barriers is huge for me. That is my purpose, to show women like me can live in different worlds and environments [depicted] in cinema and television that break the barriers of what they think they know. We’re in the sci-fi space; we’re romantic interests in rom-coms, we’re in Victorian times or cowboy – we can do it all. That’s what I want my legacy to be and to even transcend my wildest dreams in this industry.
AW: How do you think we disrupt that space and build value?
DB: We gotta just do it ourselves. We have to reach back and pull each other up when we get a chance. I watched Essence Black Woman in Hollywood and was so inspired every time I came to that event. I was in awe because these women were giving us space to be seen and share our stories and testimonies with one another. I realized there wasn’t a space for Black Broadway women, so I created with two other sisters, [an organization] Black Women on Broadway, where we could celebrate our wins and beautiful scars when these institutions don’t see us.
AW: What heals Danielle to then heal others through film?
DB: Every day brings something new. It’s about the search for wisdom and finding what refills my cup. Whether it’s a moment with my hair and makeup team, our ritual dance “the swag surf” to remind me to enjoy life, or quiet moments with family and music, I seek out those moments to refuel, especially during overwhelming times like press campaigns. It’s a lot to refuel yourself, just being quiet and listening to some PJ Morton or gospel music or using the calm app – it’s essential.
AW: What ways does the re-imagine film adaptation add to “The Color Purple” Legacy?
DB: We’ll discover the impact with time, much like the initial rejection of the first one in 1985. Over the years, there’s been a noticeable shift. Now, before our movie even released, we’ve witnessed this transformation. It’s become a significant part of our legacy, offering black women the opportunity to be the “sheroes” of their own stories, without relying on a white savior or male figure to rescue them.
AW: How do you continuously grow as an actor, mom and wife?
DB: Wisdom, wisdom, wisdom. It is embodied in the meaning of Sofia’s name. It is about embracing change and shifting thoughts. It’s easier to stay in a negative space, but pulling oneself out requires effort and willingness to redirect energy. I seek wisdom everywhere, whether through podcasts like Jay Shetty’s or listening to minister Mike Warward from FCBC [First Corinthian Baptist Church] in Harlem. When I feel low or drained, I search for inspiration from figures like Viola Davis and Maya Angelou to refill my cup and propel myself forward.
AW: What makes you feel good?
DB: Getting a good old hair moment going on. It doesn’t have to be straight, either! It can be a good old set of curls and coils, you know, but or braids or dreadlocks. I don’t know, but a fresh hairdo, some good lashes, and a beat face [getting your makeup done], honey. That’ll do it for me.
AW: What is one word to describe the mark you’ve had in your acting career so far and the same word to describe the legacy you want to leave behind?
DB: Authenticity. It is okay to feel how you feel. You have to learn how to navigate that respectfully in this world. Being authentic has served me well. It served me with acting. It served me in my day-to-day life. It served me with being a mother and a wife. That’s a part of what my legacy would be, too. I want people to remember me as my authentic self. Whether they’re reading my articles, watching my movies, seeing me marching at a women’s rights [event]… it’s just who I am. I think that’s the only way that nobody can be better than you.
** edited for continuity