I will and I can – Oprah Winfrey talks about the spirit of Selma – Jessica Young
There are few people who truly need no introduction; Oprah Winfrey is one of them. Film producer, actress, TV talk show host, magazine publisher, philanthropist and more, Oprah is recognised around the world.
While taking a break from The Oprah Magazine and her OWN TV network, she created the time to produce and perform in Selma, the recent film based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by John Lewis, James Bevel, Hosea Williams and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recently got the opportunity to sit down with Oprah to talk about the film. She didn’t disappoint; intelligent and forthcoming, she was as warm and friendly as one could hope.
Oprah, you’re the producer of Selma. So what made you go behind the camera as well as portraying a real life, kick-butt civil rights protester?
Because I was asked! Ava DuVernay, the director, sent me an online story regarding the real Annie Lee Cooper. It was from a Selma newspaper about her celebrating her 100th birthday in 2010. It talked about her life and her memories of that time in Selma; where she had the fight with Sheriff Clark and knocked him down.
What made you decide to say yes?
At the end of the piece Ava sent me, she wrote that Annie used to watch the Oprah Show at 4 o’clock every day – while eating a tuna fish sandwich! Ava said to me, “Don’t you think it would have meant a lot to her? That you knew she watched every day at 4 o’clock with a tuna fish sandwich?”
And that was it; previously I had said “No, no, no!”
Why was your previous answer, no?
Because every film I’ve been in, I end up hitting somebody! In my last movie The Butler, I had to slap David [Oyelowo], so I said I didn’t want to do another film where I’m knocking somebody out, or having a fight. But the thing is, that really did happen to Annie. There’s a famous photograph of her being pinned down by the two deputy sheriffs because she attacked them. So I said yes, for Annie Lee Cooper, and the tuna fish sandwich, and for watching the Oprah Show every day.
Did anything else contribute to your change of heart?
Of course. I couldn’t really turn down the opportunity to pay tribute to every woman and man in history who took that walk to the Registrar’s office and was turned down. Who went back home, and continued to try again, year after year. The Selma march was Annie Lee Cooper’s fifth time.
You just 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 be able to take a few minutes in that walk, to pay tribute to all of those people. That’s really why I said yes.
What do you feel this movie says about how important it is to know your history?
I think you don’t know yourself, and you don’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you come from. Maya Angelou has a wonderful poem. It’s called, “To Our Grandmothers.” In it she says, ‘I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand.’
I’ve been in multiple meetings where I was the only woman and the only black person within a 50-mile radius. But each time, I stepped into that room as one, and I came with ten thousand.
What has that meant to you?
Knowing that means I can go anywhere, and I can do anything. I recognise where I come from, and what I’ve come from. The Annie Lee Coopers of the world didn’t make the history books. They aren’t as well known as Dr. King, John Lewis, and all the others that were equally important. There is no greater victory than the courage they demonstrated daily, to stand inside and stand up for themselves. When you understand your history, you understand you.
What was it that made you realise this movie would be a history maker?
I first had that moment with David Oyelewo. He and I were in the trailer, filming ‘The Butler’, and he handed me a tape, explaining, “I did this little film.” I looked at the tape, and I googled Ava DuVernay. I saw that she was a female African American director, and I read a little bit of her history. I got her email address from David and emailed her to ask for her phone number. Soon after, I called her up and told her, “We’re going to be friends!”
Instantly I could feel the countenance from her spirit. There was something inside her that was also inside me. I could see it in David too; it’s why I befriended him during the filming of ‘The Butler’. There is what I call ‘The it factor.’ Those who have ‘it’ recognise ‘it’ in others.
I could sense from David a level of humility, and a level of pure passion and desire to honour his calling. But above his calling as a human being, is his calling to honour what God had put him here to do.
I saw that in him because I have it in myself, and I told him we were going to be friends. I could see that he is favoured. He is favoured from on high. And I’ve had that favour, so I know what it looks like. I wanted to do whatever I could to elevate that, and I could feel the same thing in Ava.
I think that part of my trajectory here on the planet has been to try to inspire, and lift other people up. So when I saw that there was somebody else who had that ‘it’ thing, I wanted to do everything in my power to lift that up and to bring light and attention to it. That’s why it happened, and now…we’re just buds!
Has Dr. King’s family seen the film?
Yes, we have heard from the Kings. Last week at my home in Santa Barbara, we had a celebration with all of the civil rights leaders who were a part of the film. John Lewis, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Reverend Lowery, and Diane Nash.
All of them were there, along with Bernice King and Martin Luther King Jr. III. They’ve seen the film now, at least two times, and they’re really impressed with Carmen. They think Carmen depicted their mother beautifully, and they felt equally about David’s portrayal of Dr. King. It was good to know they’re pretty pleased with the film.
You had some problems creating the dialogue for Dr. King didn’t you?
Oh yes, we did. We didn’t have the intellectual property for this, so we weren’t allowed to use any of Dr. King’s original speeches. But listen, Ava is brilliant! There were times where we needed another scene. The producers would be on the phone saying, “Ava – can you go back, channel Dr. King, and write that scene this weekend?”
Which she did! Every single word coming out of his mouth for those speeches – Ava wrote them. She did it in such a way that in the end, Bernice said to David, “It’s the best interpretation of my father that I’ve ever seen.”
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