“I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.” – Oprah Winfrey

That was Oprah accepting the Cecile B. Demille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes this year. Though there was nothing in her speech that would suggest she was contemplating a presidential run in 2020, very soon after her rousing oration there was overwhelming talk of a possible run. Now I have to admit, after seeing the very specific public reaction that followed the Globes, I combed through the transcript to confirm what I had already known–there was no reason to believe, based solely on what Oprah said while accepting the award, that she was thinking about running. In fact, she’d already made a statement to the contrary back in 2015 when she sat down with Gayle King on CBS This Morning. Upon being asked whether she’d consider running for president, Oprah responded, “Oh, come on! I’m president of my own company,–Not in this lifetime.”

Oprah’s nearly 35 year career is built on masterful interview journalism–which makes some people believe she is a fair person who can see both sides of a situation and think objectively. She’s also known for her unbelievable generosity with her riches. But what does the public really know about Oprah as a leader? Oprah as the person who isn’t digging for someone else’s truth, but who has decided what the truth will be for the American people and makes decisions to that effect? I don’t think that that is what Oprah ever intended to do with her influence–she is a storyteller. She brings the personal stories of people, real or fictional, to the forefront of society for discussion.

That is what Oprah is exceptional at–and it takes a particular talent. However, this talent does not lend itself to being a lawmaker. There is a reason some people choose the reporter side of the room over the politician side, a choice Oprah made over 30 years ago. And yet, knowing all of this, the masses continue to speculate about Oprah’s possible presidential run. It is a classic case of collective wishful thinking. Many people who are considering the current leadership in this country and its lack of class in comparison to the Obama administration ache for the days when we were proud to say “That’s the president of the United States,” when 44 was in the oval office. People want that feeling back, and what better choice than the world’s most accepted black female public image–Oprah Winfrey.

Even though most signs negate the possibility of Oprah running for president, this wishful thinking phenomena has persisted–even through Oprah’s own denial over the years. Today, though, for the sake of “maybe,” we can and possibly should consider what kind of president OPrah would be. One way we might be able to put together such a far-fetched and improbable hypothetical future is to take a look at the most intimate shows of person we have from Ms. Oprah Winfrey–her live action acting roles. When else in Oprah’s media career are we more exposed to Oprah, the person, and not Oprah as she attempts to expose to us an existential truth, or the the truth of another? We see her most interior contributions in her intense roles. What do her acting roles, both her choice of roles and the way she portrays them, say about what kind of leader Oprah might be to the free world? Let’s speculate.

 

Sofia, The Color Purple

Oprah’s first major role was in the Spielberg-directed retelling of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Sofia is the character who stood up for herself against the misogyny in black community that demanded her body, as well as the racism that demanded the bodies of her children. Hers was the tragic reminder of the realistic danger that came with being a black woman who defended herself in the America of that day and age. While Ceely is able to move on towards a life of enhanced freedom, Sofia represented what happened to most real women when they attempted to say “Hell no,” to the things that usurped her autonomy. This role is the most non-compliant of Oprah’s compliant historical African-American roles. This is a black woman character who said no and acted out her no in a socially unacceptable way, unlike some of her civil rights era characters, who leaned towards abiding by peace or the reworking the system in order to gain more freedoms.

While Sofia hit a white man in public, the characters that follow would be much less radical in their resistance. This character, and Oprah’s passionate desire to play it, give me the most hope that as a president, she would have at least a small semblance of radicalism in her hypothetical presidential run. Just a tiny bit of “Hell no” in Oprah’s hands is quite powerful–because she has already been widely accepted by the majority white masses, and her passionate sentiments are more like to be identified with. So, if and when a situation that is unfair and requiring of a “Heeell no,” I think we wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that Oprah’s admiration for the character might imply that she could be that person to assert the radical notion that black women have the right to say no–to men, and to pervasive coddling of whiteness, or the combination of the two.

 

Sethe, Beloved

In Jonathan Deme’s fantastic adaptation of Toni Morrison’s ghostly runaway slave story Beloved, Oprah plays the haunted and traumatized Sethe. Sethe is a woman living with crippling depression and regret, reeling from the deadly decision she’d made when she perceived that white men were going to attack herself and her baby. This is another one of Oprah’s most resisting roles, as she plays a woman who wanted to control her own life, at the expense of being seen as what society would have deemed a good mother. This is a character that says “Hell no” just like Sofia did in The Color Purple, at the expense of her sanity to protect herself and her child. What always hits me when I see this film is the commitment to the role that emanates from Oprah and her fellow cast members.

She is able to deliver a feeling to the audience that we are seeing a woman stripped bare to play this role, who is also just a woman bare before her pain and past. That commitment to empathy lends itself towards Oprah as more than just a mediator or moderator, but Oprah as a woman who knows pain and can empathize with the pain of others. This is a characteristic that the American people really enjoy seeing in the sitting president, case in point being Barack Obama. It was difficult to doubt that 44 genuinely cared for the people over which he governed, as he would shed a tear for the loss of children’s lives or the devastation that life-altering storms wrought upon some American cities. Her choice and portrayal of this character send the message that Oprah can be that same kind of beacon of empathy as President, but also that she understands desperation and hasn’t forgotten its feel in her now long-running success.

 

Gloria Gaines, Lee Daniel’s The Butler

This is the point at which Oprah’s choices in character roles become a lot more respectable. Oprah plays the wife to the butler, played by Forest Whitaker, who serves eight presidents and sees the country through many changes during his career as a servant in the White House. Oprah is not the main voice in this film, as she plays the right-hand woman to the main character. She supports her husband in his career endeavors in the same way other black women had stood beside their male partners during the civil rights movement. She is neither radical nor was this an opportunity for her to expose her impressive acting chops. One might wonder whether the shift in roles is due to the availability of radical roles like the ones she’d played before, or whether Oprah had decided that too much radicalism and “Hell no” somehow doesn’t serve the common good of the black community. This is not an entirely fabricated line of thinking; as represented in the film by the dichotomy between the subservient Forest Whitaker character and his radical Black Panther son, with age the black ideology calms from radical to a “fix the system from the inside,” or “kill ‘em with kindness” way of thinking when trying to make strides for a more racially sensitive society. We could choose to see that same dichotomy between the father and son in the film within Oprah as radical woman character and Oprah as calm, respectable civil rights character. There is more of an emphasis on being strong through the terrible things that happen, rather than saying no and shedding blood to secure the right to do so.

 

Annie Lee Cooper, Selma

Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper in Ava DuVernay’s retelling the events that took place during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1964, by blacks who peacefully protested to obtain the right to vote in America. This is another role for Oprah in which she isn’t afraid to stand up for her right to autonomy. Annie Lee Cooper is best known for punching the sheriff of Selma, similar to what Sofia did to the white man who hit her in The Color Purple. In a sea of characters to choose from in this film, we get to see her say “Hell no” once again, and do the unthinkable–retaliating violence perpetrated against her by a white man with power. The choice to portray that particular character, especially in light of the fact that she’d made a similar choice in characters when she first started out in acting, would lend the reasoning that Oprah likes characters who cross the social lines in the sand for what they know is theirs. When we consider a black woman for president, that is something we want to know is inside of her–because people will cross the line with her.

We’ve seen in the treatment of many black women in the public sphere of politics, reduced to childish comments while they attempt to do their jobs, ignorant caricatures and distracting stories are circulated to discredit them. We want a president who knows when to cross the line right back at them. Barack Obama is notorious for never having done that, and getting progress made without ever needing to. Michelle Obama is praised for that too, holding her poise under pressure and when her incredibly impressive credentials are side-stepped in attempts to diminish her contributions. However, with a black woman in the presidential seat, we want to see a fearless leader who can get hairy when things absolutely have to–and this will inevitably happen. While Barack was able to artfully step around the ignorance, a woman in that seat will have a multiplication of even what the Obamas went through. The combination of racism and sexism, especially after the encouragement these sentiments receive under the Trump administration, will continue to cross the lines of respect and reason. We would need the radical “no” that Oprah portrays in Cooper and her similar characters.

In summation, Oprah’s roles for the most part reveal a radical inner notion to believe in one’s voice even when under the current society’s rules, that would mean being unexpected and downright unapologetic. This isn’t the Oprah we get in her interviews and in her charitable endeavors and as the public face of her enormous achievements, but the whispers are in the choices of her acting roles. That is exactly where we want the radicalism of our first black woman president-deep down in her bones, only stirred at the most critical moments of necessity. As a black woman in the oval office, she would need it to deal with the state of this warped-truth obsessed country, but also as Americans, we will need some “hell no,” to exercise use of the possessing demons of the cyclical venomous history embedded in the United States of America.

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