Oprah Winfrey draws upon power from past for Selma role

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      NEW YORK CITY—In a Manhattan hotel room overlooking Central Park, a roomful of journalists patiently awaits the arrival of the cast and crew of Selma. A quick look around, however, makes it clear that this isn’t your average group of critics. Baseball caps and unpressed dress shirts have been abandoned in favour of “Peace, Love and Oprah” Ts, and the atmosphere is more party than media conference. Such is the effect Oprah Winfrey has on a room. When she walks in and delivers a simple “Hi, you all” in her familiar bellow, hoots and hollers follow.

      Talk-show host, philanthropist, and arguably the most influential woman in North America, if not the world, Winfrey added to an already impossible schedule by taking on both production and acting duties for Selma (opening next Friday [January 9]). The film is directed by Ava DuVernay and revolves around the 1965 voting-rights marches led in part by Martin Luther King Jr. The city of Selma, Alabama, in particular, was a battleground in this fight. All the characters in the film are based on real people, with Winfrey playing Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who was at the forefront of the movement. While she isn’t in every scene, Winfrey makes a deep impression as Cooper.

      She was already signed on as a producer when her director persuaded Winfrey to go in front of the camera. “’Cause Ava made me do it, Ava made me do it,” she says, her hands up, pleading mock innocence. “Ava sent me an online piece regarding the real Annie Lee Cooper that was from a Selma newspaper when she celebrated her 100th birthday in 2010,” Winfrey continues. “And at the end of the piece it said every day now she watched the Oprah show at 4 o’clock with a tuna-fish sandwich. And Ava said, ‘Don’t you think it would mean a lot to her to know that you, who she watched every day at 4 o’clock with the tuna-fish sandwich, was portraying her?’ And that was it.”

      Of course, Cooper’s struggle was always going to register with Winfrey, and when she’s asked about the importance of taking on the role, she responds the way everyone in the room expects—and wants. “I’ve been in multiple meetings where I was the single woman and the single black person within a 50-mile radius,” she says, “but I step into that room as one, and I come with 10,000, and 10,000, and 10,000 at my back and my sides. Knowing that means I can go anywhere, I can do anything, because I recognize where I’ve come from and what I’ve come from. So the Annie Lee Coopers of the world, whose names aren’t as known as Dr. King and John Lewis and all the others, were equally important in the courage that they demonstrated daily to stand up for themselves. When you understand your history, you understand you.”