NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, after she’d delivered her news-cycle-dominating barn burner of a Golden Globes speech, Oprah Winfrey held court at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
She’d booked the place for a marathon day of interviews with pop culture luminaries, which were being taped for the televised OWN series SuperSoul Conversations and the podcast of the same name. Part one, which features Jordan Peele, Salma Hayek Pinault and Trevor Noah, will air on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The interviews with Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Yara Shahidi will air in part two on March 6 at 10 p.m.
One moment was especially shocking: Oprah was speaking with Peele, the Oscar-nominated director of Get Out. “I won’t shame anybody, those who haven’t yet seen it. Most of them are up there — ” Oprah said, pointing toward the upper mezzanine, “— and there’s a reason for that.” The black women in the audience, especially those in the orchestra section, erupted with whoops and laughs.
“Those of you who are white, you should go and see it with a black friend,” Oprah continued. “Gayle [King] said she’d seen it at a screening or something and then she went as saw it with a black audience and it was completely different.”
Another round of laughs.
“Kill the b—-!” Oprah jeered, referring to the character who lures unsuspecting black men to her family’s compound where she and her family auction them off to whites seeking younger, stronger bodies to inhabit.
This was followed by about 30 seconds of raucous applause, and more whooping.
Where in Sam Hill did this Oprah come from?
Oprah’s always been black and she’s always been forthright about her own experiences with racism. But many black people have had a complicated relationship with Oprah, with her wealth, with perceptions of her obligations to The Black Community. See: those who called on Oprah to rescue the television series Underground even after she explained it didn’t make good financial sense for the OWN network or those who resented her for building a school for poor girls in South Africa instead of stateside or those who resented The Color Purple and her role in it because they thought it unfairly maligned black men. For years, like much of middle America, she had a distant-to-lukewarm relationship with hip-hop.
As some black people saw it, Oprah had an unspoken covenant with the white people who delivered the bulk of her bonkers ratings and subsequent wealth: Sure, she’s allowed to periodically remind white people that she’s black, but she’s sure not going to turn into Assata Shakur.
Oprah is the preeminent white lady whisperer of the 20th century, an observation Saturday Night Live recently resurrected amid speculation of an Oprah 2020 run for president.
Leslie Jones-as-Oprah stopped by the Weekend Update desk to explain why she might turn to public service.
“I need to get white women back on track,” said Jones-as-Oprah. “Ever since I’ve been off the air, they’ve gotten out of control. They voted for Trump. They voted for Roy Moore. They kept 12 different shows about flipping houses on air. It’s a mess!”
In the past few years, though, something has shifted ever so slightly. It was evident from the reactions of black women in the Apollo audience, who murmured with gleeful astonishment to Oprah’s “kill the b—-” comment. I saw a few more eyebrows go up when Oprah suggested to Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the Two Dope Queens who opened the event for her, that the trio “go to a salon and get box braids.” There was a similar reaction when the bass line to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” thumped in during a video accompanying Peele’s introduction: OK, Oprah! We see you, girl.
Has black people’s relationship with Oprah changed or has she? Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Oprah’s role in the public imagination, and the attention and commerce it commands, has always been raced and gendered. I remember my college poetry professor dismissing her as a “mammy diva,” referring to Oprah’s penchant for making white people comfortable while also putting herself on the cover of her eponymous magazine every month.
I think she’s following the compass of her power as a public figure. For Oprah, magnetic north has been shifting back toward black women ever since she decided to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. It’s a shift that’s been unfolding for years, as OWN, which launched in January 2011, found its ratings footing thanks to black women, rather than the Oprah show’s bread and butter demo of white mothers and housewives. Oprah has returned the love by investing in programming that caters directly to them, from Black Love to Queen Sugar to Greenleaf to the forthcoming Love Is ___, an hourlong drama from Salim and Mara Brock Akil, the couple behind Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane, and most recently, Black Lightning. (Tyler Perry, the much-maligned actor-director-producer who was responsible for the network’s early ratings success, is moving on to Viacom.)
Oprah is the most powerful black woman in the world, and through her programming choices, she’s redoubled her efforts to reach other black women, reaffirming that, yes, deep down, beneath all that money, she really is just like them. That’s precisely why, upon meeting her last June at a press junket for Queen Sugar, I asked Oprah if she’d ever consider hosting a presidential debate on OWN. It seemed like another way for the mogul to use her network to serve black women, especially considering how the Democratic Party has been criticized for overlooking the one demographic that’s continually bailing it out. If there’s anyone who could refocus the party’s attention on its most loyal constituency, it’s Oprah, right?
Oprah immediately shook her head. “No.”
She started to walk away, then turned back to me. Her eyes narrowed a bit, she pursed her lips, and you could see her considering the idea for another beat. “Wait. You mean in 2020?”
In February, Oprah addressed the crowd before her at the Apollo. The audience was mostly women, mostly black, and filled with people turned out in the stylish, elaborate garb that makes for street-style photography gold. Everyone dresses right for Oprah.
“I know so many people are feeling uneasy about the state of our world right now. It’s gon’ be aight,” Oprah said in the calm tones of a parent reassuring her children. “We. Have been. Through tougher times than these. It’s going to be OK. OK? Especially if you don’t buy into the hysteria. OK?”
When she was taping the Oprah show, Oprah always had a more irreverent side to her than the nation’s needy projections of comfortable matronliness would suggest. Our understanding of Oprah as a woman with youthful energy and a sex drive seems to fluctuate with her weight. She can be bashful and flirty — remember the time Jamie Foxx hit on her? She has admitted, on air, to not wearing underwear and she’s drunk tequila shots, too. After her 50th birthday, director Lee Daniels reminded us of Oprah’s sultry side in The Butler, where Oprah, as a drunken Gloria Gaines, took a long drag on a cigarette as she entertained the advances of Howard (Terrence Howard).
But she was also adept at knowing when to use her auntie affect as a way to get her celebrity guests on the Oprah show to divulge details about their lives that they didn’t necessarily wish to discuss. It’s on full display in a 2007 interview with Beyoncé, when the singer was still being cagey about her relationship with Jay-Z, and wasn’t even overtly confirming whether or not the two were married (they were).
Now, at 64, Oprah seems to be in the midst of a youthful renaissance, and not just because she embraces the awkward Gen Z humor of Twooooo Dooope Queeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeens, as she calls them. For the SuperSoul taping, Oprah was dressed in an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place on a woman 30 years younger: skinny black jeans, kicky black moto boots, and an ice-blue velvet blazer over a partially sheer white blouse. Her hair was pulled into a high, bouncy ponytail that gave her a girlish quality. She was sporting a pair of round glasses that featured leopard print detail on the bridge and temples. She looked, well, cool.
More than any other time during her life in the public eye, Oprah seems to be enjoying the freedom to do and say whatever she wants. This was hugely apparent when she told her audience at the Apollo that she had more power being Oprah than she could ever wield as president of the United States.
What does it look like to preserve your faith in humanity while shedding the last remnants of damns you have to give?
Keep your eye on Oprah. She’s showing us.