Oprah Winfrey is considered the most influential and most powerful woman on earth, has been ranked the richest African-American in the 20th century and the greatest black philanthropist in American history, presents The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the highest-rated programme of its kind in history and delivered an estimated one million votes for president Barack Obama in 2008, yet when she recently stepped into a shop in Zürich, Switzerland she was refused the chance to examine a luxury handbag. “That happens to lots of black and brown people every day in their lives, but it was unusual to me, because people usually get excited when I am shopping,” she laughs.
The incident prompted the Swiss government to issue an apology to the queen of talk, who later regretted mentioning it. “I am really sorry that the incident has gotten blown up that way it has,” she says.
In spite of her worldwide fame and recognised face, which often shield her from the racial experiences that other African-Americans have to constantly endure, Oprah has her own tales to tell. In late 1990’s, a store in New York refused to open the door for her, when they saw that she was black, claiming they were closed, although they had just told her over the phone that they were open. And when she complained to the store, upon returning to her home in Chicago, they told her that they had been robbed by two black transvestites.
“What happened to me in that store, it happens to people all the time,” she says. “Black people there are followed, and people think that you don’t have any right to be here. But my experience of race in America is different from other blacks. Literally it does not happen to me that way, because I have always been a part of the corporate world and owning myself and developing my business and career.”
Race is the theme of her new movie, in which she plays Gloria, the wife of eponymous The Butler. Directed by Lee Daniels, the film follows the harrowing journey of African-Americans through the eyes of a White House butler, who served 8 US presidents, from oppressive servitude in the 1940’s to social equality in the 1960’s and ultimately to the presidency of the United States in 2008.
The story of the film reflects the lives of many African-Americans who overcame the hurdles of racism and ascended to the top of the American society. Oprah herself was born in a rural poverty in Mississippi to an unmarried teenage mother and raised by her grandmother, who was so poor that Oprah often wore dresses made of potato sacks. The old lady taught her to read before the age of three and punished her when she misbehaved. By the age of 13, she moved to live with her father in Nashville.
At high school, she became an honours student, was voted the Most Popular Girl and joined the school’s speech team, placing second in the nation in dramatic interpretations. Her luminous talent quickly gained her a job at a local black radio station WVL at the age of 17. From there, she moved to Nashville WLAC-TV and then Baltimore’s WJ-TV, where she co-anchored the six o’clock news at the age of 19. Seven years later, In 1983, she moved to Chicago to host WLS-TV’s talk show AM Chicago, which she turned into a phenomenal success and in 1986 renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Oprah’s acting career, however, is quite limited. She co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1984), for which she garnered an Academy Award nomination, and starred in Beloved in 1998. Hence she approached The Butler with anxiety and trepidation. “I had not done this for fifteen years and I had given up acting because of my daily job and the work and the time was required to put into the Oprah show,” she says. “I was never able to find the work or find the director or producer, rightfully so for them who could fit my schedule.”
But when she saw Lee Daniels’ award winning movie Precious in 2009, she felt that she had found the right director to work with. “But I was not sure that I still had it,” she laughs. So she hired an acting coach Susan Batson to teach her how to cry. “There was going to be a lot of crying in this scene and I wasn’t sure I could execute it because I didn’t know if I had the technical skill to do that on cue,” Oprah laughs. But within a 20-minute chat with the coach, Oprah was bawling on the sofa. “I am going to need a confidentially agreement for everything I just told you,” Oprah told her. It turned out that the most powerful woman in the world still had vulnerable spaces to tap into in order to connect with Gloria, who had to suffer the life of a black wife and mother when her people were fighting for their civil rights.
That was not enough. Oprah, who has little in common with housewife Gloria, had to surrender her Oprahness in order to connect with the spirit and absorb the energy of her character. She even learned how to smoke, drink and curse, patiently practicing all these bad habits that she eschews and preaches against in real life and wandering around with a pack of herbal cigarettes in her pocket for two months.
There were other challenges for the media mogul, who was forming her OWN network and running her show while filming. “I literally would go shoot a scene and then go do an interview, or get on the phone with my team about the network,” she says. But doing this film was worth it, because the story moved her deeply and because she believes that her role in this universe is to connect people to meaningful stories, so they can see their lives through them.
“I want people to see African-American people as real people, as a family, with tenderness and love and connection, and faith and nurturing and support,” she enthuses. “I want people to feel that and understand the history. I want people to see the context of history against the backdrop of the emotions of the family and come away feeling like wow, wasn’t that something that our country went through?”
In spite of her immense wealth and worldwide fame, Oprah seems like a genuine caring mother, who touches and cuddles everybody around her and smothers them with love and affection. The dark and difficult subject of racism that we dwelt on for over 45 minutes at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills didn’t dim her spirit or wipe the smile off her face. No wonder she is adored by so many people around the world.