'For so many years, I was just Oprah'

BY: Isaac Yeboah

US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey has said she feels the time is finally right for audiences to embrace films that tackle slavery and civil rights.

The 59-year-old told BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz she was "so happy" a number of new titles cover the topics.

One of these, 12 Years a Slave, moved her to tears during the interview.

Asked if some of the challenges and criticisms faced by President Barack Obama were down to the colour of his skin, she said: "There's no question."

Winfrey has a starring role in The Butler, which recounts the life of an African American man who grows up on a cotton plantation.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) goes on to witness the Civil Rights struggle as he serves under a succession of US presidents. Winfrey takes the role of his wife Gloria.

"I think everything has its time and I'm so happy for this time," said Winfrey. "The fact that all of them are happening this year is really, really exciting.

"People are ready to hear it," she added, recalling that her 1998 film Beloved, which also addressed America's slave-owning past, was met with a cool reception - including from African American journalists.

Winfrey became visibly emotional during the interview when referring to harrowing scenes in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. "It's impossible for me to talk about it," she said. "I can't even talk about it. Devastating."

She also feels The Butler has an important role. "I recognise the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from.

"I thought it was an important story for our time and particularly for young people who won't read the history."

The media mogul said she had been lucky to be born in 1954 and never to have attended a racially segregated school in her native Mississippi.

"If I'd been born five years earlier, none, not any of the benefits that I've been blessed to be successful with would have occurred," she said.


She recalled an incident in 2009 when Mr Obama was giving a speech to Congress, and Republican congressman Joe Wilson called out "you lie".

"Remember that?" she said. "I think there's a level of disrespect for the office that occurs.

"And that occurs in some cases, and maybe even many cases, because he's African American. There's no question about that. And it's the kind of thing no one ever says, but everybody's thinking it."

Winfrey, who is making a return to the screen in Lee Daniels' film, also revealed that acting was her greatest joy.

"It gives me the kind of pleasure that I can't get from anything else, because I get to leave the business of being Oprah. For so many years, I was just Oprah."

Daniels, she went on, had tried to lure her back into film with a role which went against type - playing a child serial killer.

"I said to him, 'I don't think so. Not only am I not going to do this script, I don't even want you to send me anything like this.'"

Winfrey added that she and the film-maker had "major arguments" about her character in The Butler, and that she had fought to ensure she did not appear nude or swear.

The Butler is out in the UK and Ireland on 15 November.