Oprah Winfrey reflects on 'The Color Purple,' America's disinterest in news and '12 Years a Slave'
"If I did that film now, I'd do things differently," Winfrey admitted. "I was very adamant about maintaining the integrity of the book. Now I know a book is one thing and a movie is another." It took 10 years of hard work to finally realize the project on screen, and the experience ended up being as much a milestone in her life and career as "The Color Purple" was. It was at a time, 1998, when she was feeling tired of her daily talk show (which had become a huge sensation in the wake of her first film role) and she was thinking of stepping away from it.
"Putting myself in the spiritual space of what it's like to be a slave, I said, 'I don't know what tired is,'" she said. "I came into a deeper understanding of who I am. That is when I realized the show is bigger than me…My role is to inspire, encourage, uplift and let people see the light in themselves. All those years [with 'The Oprah Winfrey Show'], that is what I was trying to do."
Nevertheless, the box office disappointment of "Beloved" sent her into a "numbing depression." She realized, she said, that the value of the system in place — test screenings, etc. — whereby she was being told what elements didn't work. But there again, she was interested in maintaining the integrity of Morrison's work. The result was a movie that didn't reach as wide an audience as she had hoped, and that, she said, is what she would change now.
Eventually "The Oprah Winfrey Show" ran its course and she went out on top. "I didn't want someone dragging me out of the ring, taking the mic out of my hand," she said. She wanted to end it on her own terms, and she took a moment to consider a similar position "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno finds himself in now.
"Jay is going to have a moment," she said. "When you do it and it's your life and your routine — it took me a year to separate the show from myself and understand who I am separate from that show."
While she was in the heat of building The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), that's when movies started to call again. She had a relationship already with director Lee Daniels, who had considered her for the Mo'Nique role in "Precious" and even, she revealed, asked her to star in the role that Melissa Leo would eventually take in "Prisoners" when he was considering helming that film. That's when "The Butler" finally came around.
She was worried that she hadn't even thought about acting in 15 years at that time but she found her way into the character and thought it was a vital project. It was also one reflective of a history that many in our country seem to be more and more ignorant of. Is that depressing, Horn asked her.
"No," she said. "It's just who we are. Is it shocking that a news organization can't do news today? No, because we're not a culture that wants news. We're a culture that wants entertainment. So that's why CNN is having trouble. It's who we are."
Winfrey seemed most happy to have shared the screen with co-star Forest Whitaker in the film. She was taken by the actor's "quiet dignity" and the whole experience may have ignited a desire for more film work in the future.
"I think I will do other films and make choices that are meaningful to me," she said. "I have some specific things I won't do, though. I won't kill people [as a character in a movie]. Energetically, I don't want to go to the place where I exert violence on somebody…For me, life is about energy."
And here she sits, a woman born in the "apartheid state" of 1954 Mississippi who can live her life in the hills of Montecito, a trajectory she more than once called a "miracle." Perhaps that fortune is why she can so easily trade in philosophies that, out of anyone else's mouth, might read as platitudes. "The real goal in life is to become more who you are, so you can make decisions that matter to you and enhance who you are," she might say. Or, "Anyone who's ever believed in anything knows it doesn't matter what other people think." Or, indeed, her reasoning behind doing "Beloved": "In spite of slavery, we're still a people who can love."
On that last point, it's interesting to note that that very element — love — is what director Steve McQueen has consistently said lies at the heart of his Best Picture nominee "12 Years a Slave." There was discussion early on about that film, and about the great year for African American cinema 2013 has been. She praised "12 Years" for being both entertaining and informative, going on to declare that she hopes it will win the Best Picture Oscar in March.
"I was having a conversation with Spike Lee about this recently," she recalled. "He was saying that every five to 10 years, people talk about this abundance of black films, but then it goes away. So I hope [that's not the case this time]…The fact that we're open to hearing other people's stories really excites me."