“Why I Said Yes:” Oprah Winfrey on Producing and Acting in Selma

Oprah Winfrey participated at the Manhattan press conference Sunday, December 14, 2014, at the Mandarin Oriental New York, to promote Selma, Ava DuVernay’s chronicle of the historic events that culminated in the peaceful Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Along with the director and Winfrey, who is a producer and also appears in the film as Annie Lee Cooper, cast and crew at the press conference included David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Andre Holland, Tim Roth, and producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. Oyelowo, Winfrey and DuVernay’s bond was evident from their interactions at the press conference: They laughed easily and seemed to have a special understanding. Here are highlights from Winfrey’s conversation.

On being a motivating force for the film as a producer, and why she agreed to appear in the film:

“Ava made me do it. Ava sent me an online piece regarding the real Annie Lee Cooper, that was from the Selma newspaper when she celebrated her 100th birthday in 2010. And in that piece it talked about her life and her memories of that time in Selma where she actually knocked down, had a fight, with Sheriff Clark. It said that every day now she watched the Oprah show at 4 o’clock with her tuna fish sandwich…

Ava said, don’t you think it would mean a lot to her that you portray her? I said no. Every film I’ve been in I end up hitting somebody. The last movie [I acted in], I had to slap David [Oyelowo, in The Butler]. And I said, ‘I don’t’ want to do another film where I’m knocking somebody out or having a fight.’ But it really happened, and there’s a famous photograph of her being pinned down by the deputy sheriff.

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.”

Winfrey answers questions at the Selma New York press conference

Winfrey answers questions at the Selma New York press conference. Photograph by Paula Schwartz

On the importance of history:

“I think you don’t know yourself and you don’t where you’re going unless you know where you’ve 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 10,000.’ And I’ve been in multiple meetings where I was the single woman and the single black person within a 50-mile radius. I step into that room and I come with 10,000 and 10,000 and 10,000 at my back and my sides and knowing what that means.”

On how she knew DuVernay and Oyelowo were special:

“I Googled Ava. I saw that she was an African-American woman director, and read a little bit of her history, and I emailed her, got her e-mail address from David… I said we were going to be friends.

I could feel from her countenance, from the spirit of her, that there was something inside her that I also had inside me. I could see that in David and that’s why I befriended David on The Butler.

I call it the ‘It’ factor and those who have ‘it,’ recognize ‘it’ in others. I could sense from David a level of humility and a level of pure passion and desire to honor his calling and the calling beyond just being an actor, but his calling as a human being, to honor what God had put him here to do. I saw that in him because I have that in myself. And I told him we were going to be friends. I could see that he is favored, favored from on high, and I’ve had that favor so I know what that looks like, and I wanted to do whatever I could to elevate that. I could feel the same thing in Ava.

Part of my trajectory here on the planet has been to try to inspire and lift other people up. When I saw  that here was somebody that has that thing, that ‘it’ thing, I wanted to do everything in my power to lift that up, to bring light to that, to bring attention to thing. So that’s why it happened. And now we’re just buds.” MM

Selma opened in limited theaters on December 25, 2014, and in wide release on January 9, 2015, courtesy of Paramount Pictures. For more on Selma, read MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue cover story, available on newsstands on January 30, 2015. An excerpt from that article, written by Michelle Orange, can be found here.

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