Sure, she’s every woman, she’s a legit phenomenon, but she’s used her powers for good and for frock flicks when she’s had a chance! In the few serious acting roles she’s taken, Oprah Winfrey has made a point of championing African-American women’s history on screen, with a side of fine 20th-century literature. So let’s get real and get some Oprah in historical costume.
Sofia in The Color Purple (1985)
Winfrey says this Alice Walker novel (which begins in the early 1900s) is one of her favorite books and she was thrilled and nervous for this first acting opportunity. In Collider, she admitted:
“At the time, I only had two weeks vacation. I was doing 220 shows a year, and I only had two weeks for vacation. But I needed two months to film The Color Purple and my bosses were like, ‘Get your ass back here because AM Chicago is what’s important. That’s what you signed up for.’ And I was like, ‘Please just let me have two more weeks.’ So, I gave up all of the vacation weeks in my contract, in order to be able to do that movie. I said, “Okay, I won’t take a vacation for the next five years, if you just let me finish this movie.” And when AM Chicago became successful, in less than six months, people started calling it The Oprah Show.”
Mrs. Thomas in Native Son (1986)
Adapted from a controversial Richard Wright novel, set in 1940s Chicago, this film had mixed reviews, but Oprah’s performance was praised.
Mattie Michael in The Women of Brewster Place (1989)
Based on a novel by Gloria Naylor, this miniseries was ahead of its time and under-appreciated. It focused on seven working-class African American women in the 1960s, was strongly feminist, called out men for behaving badly, and positively portrayed a lesbian couple. Winfrey says of her acting and producing of this series, at the same time as her talk show:
“I delved into a television series for awhile, with The Women of Brewster Place. I actually thought that I could film a dramatic weekly series, and do that daily show. I nearly died. I just realized that the work of the show, and my intention behind doing the show every day, was to be a light in people’s lives and be able to bring information in such a way that they could be lifted by that. It just consumed so much of my life and time that I learned that I wasn’t going to be able to do both.”
Mattie Michael in Brewster Place (1990)
A short-lived sequel to The Women of Brewster Place, continuing their stories and adding a few characters.
Sethe in Beloved (1998)
Oprah Winfrey spent a decade trying to get Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of post-Civil War horror made into a movie. This was such a labor of love, and while it wasn’t a box-office success, it’s a hugely compelling film. Colleen Atwood’s Oscar-nominated costumes help create some pivotal moments. Winfrey said of her inspiration:
“I called Toni Morrison and I said, ‘Miss Morrison, I just finished reading Beloved and I just want to know if people tell you that they have to go over the lines, again and again.’ And she said, ‘That, my dear, is called reading.’ And so, I started talking to her about the rights to the story. She said that she didn’t think it could be made into a movie. But 10 years later, we actually did it.”
Gloria Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Most of the film follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as a White House butler from the Eisenhower to Reagan administrations, and Oprah plays his wife. She’s a complicated character with affairs and addictions, plus dealing with their two rebellious sons. Oprah commented on her part in The Butler:
“I’m a historian of my own history — of African American history. I believe that when you know who you are you have the ability to move forward, not only with your own strength but with the strength of your entire ancestry. I am the daughter of a maid, and my grandmother was a maid, and her mother was a maid, and her mother was a slave. I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way. And the fact that there’s another generation of freedom writers and freedom fighters, because of evolution and growth and change, decided they weren’t going to do that anymore. Both wars were necessary for their time.”
Annie Lee Cooper in Selma (2014)
She makes a small but crucial cameo in the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voting rights campaign in 1965. Winfrey told MovieMaker Magazine why she agreed to this role:
“This is for every other woman and man in my history who took that walk to the registrar’s office and was turned down and then went back home and tried it another year and then went back and tried it another year … This was Annie Lee Cooper’s fifth time. When you think about what it takes to keep getting up and saying ‘I will’ and ‘I can’ in the face of an entire society that says you cannot and you will not … I just wanted to take the few minutes in that walk and pay tribute to all of those people. That’s why I said yes.”
Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)
She’s playing a modern woman, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, but the story flashes back to the 1950s during Henrietta’s life, so I’m including it. In the New York Times, Oprah discussed why she made this movie:
“I wanted to tell the story because I lived and worked in Baltimore as a young reporter for eight years, and I never in all those years of reporting, of being involved in the community, going to church every single Sunday at Bethel A.M.E., never once heard the name Henrietta Lacks. So I thought when I read the book, ‘Wow, if I don’t know this story, I’m sure that there are many many other people who also don’t know.'”
What’s your favorite historical movie or TV role of Oprah Winfrey’s?