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In ‘A Wrinkle In Time,’ Oprah appears as the earthly deity she’s been for years

Guru, self-help maven and fabulously kitted angel

It’s pretty amusing that a science fiction film based on a book published in 1962 is the one that delivered a role in which Oprah basically plays … herself.¹

How much was this a factor in drawing people to the cineplex? Unclear. A Wrinkle in Time took in $33.3 million at the box office this weekend. But the imagery itself, and the context behind it, is still worth examining.

The first time Oprah appears on screen in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a breathtaking stunt. She materializes in the backyard of the Murry house as the shimmering, larger-than-life Mrs Which, rising to a height of 30 feet, with a crown of curly, platinum blond hair and fabulously bejeweled eyebrows. Her bottom half never quite fully materializes, giving her an ethereal quality. Mrs Which is the oldest and wisest of the Mrs W’s, which include Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), by a billion or so years.

But upon meeting her, it’s impossible not to think, “Someone finally found a way to visually render Oprah’s role in our culture!”

Throughout her career as an actress, Oprah has brought empathy and dignity to the black women whom society actively overlooks, from Ms. Sofia in The Color Purple to Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to Sethe in Beloved.

Mrs Which is a guardian seraph to Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the girl who must travel through space and time to find and rescue her lost father, a famous NASA physicist who’s been missing for four years. Mrs Which is patient and firm with Meg, who’s having trouble loving herself and having faith in her own abilities. Where Mrs Whatsit grows impatient with Meg’s typical teen-age sullenness and doubt, Mrs Which offers realism and gentle reassurance. She repeatedly urges Meg to “be a warrior.” IRL, Oprah may not have an army of warriors for peace, but she does have an Angel Network. The movie isn’t explicit in labeling the Mrs W’s as angels, although that happens in the book, which was heavily influenced by author Madeleine L’Engle’s many years in the Episcopal Church.

Oprah’s role as a quasi-religious figure in America is legendary. She was ahead of many Americans in publicly declaring herself as spiritual rather than an adherent of a specific religious dogma. In doing so, she broadened Americans’ tolerance for religious practice that doesn’t rely on organized religion, and she may even be something of a prophet herself.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor,” said the Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal theologian at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver.

In attempting to parse Oprah’s role as The Oprah Winfrey Show was drawing to a close, The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer once called her a “child of poverty” who became “the leader of a worldwide cult.”

Greer said he thinks of her as more of a “guru.” He noted that, like L’Engle, fundamentalist Christians have seen Oprah as a threat, and sometimes that threat was due to Oprah’s race and gender. She was used as a “bogeyman” in sermons, he said, and church leaders would caution their audiences against listening to her.

“I know some people have called Billy Graham America’s pastor, but in many ways, in a more realistic sense, Oprah is America’s pastor.”

“She was seen as being too powerful. She had too much influence,” Greer said.

“Throughout Christian history, women had been very specifically and methodically marginalized by the church. They’ve been called crazy,” he continued. “That has been the struggle of a hyper kind of masculinized, Western Christian church culture: ‘I just can’t believe that this kind of lesser being is saying something that’s profound and life-changing. I need to do everything within my power to make sure that the least amount of people possible hear her.’ ”

So it’s notable that Oprah created a flock of her own, espousing love, generosity and compassion through television without the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker. Oprah exposed people to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Ed Bacon and Brené Brown. She’s helped remove the stigma associated with talk therapy.

“I do know how my mom and aunt and my deceased grandmother understood her, and it was a black woman with agency they could identify with,” Greer said. “Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, they watched Phil Donahue every day, and took his expertise and followed his taste. Sometime in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that shifted, and they were able to see someone who looked like them, who sounded like them, who came from a similar background, say, ‘I have agency. I’m the host. I’m not the sideshow or the sidekick. I am the host.’ ”

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. But with great power comes great responsibility, and when you consider Oprah’s grounding in journalism, maybe she let us down sometimes. Especially because as we’ve invested in her and her recommendations on our own roads to self-actualization, Oprah has led us down some dubious paths.

Remember The Secret?

The reason you don’t have the life you want is because you just haven’t visualized it hard enough!

Iyanla Vanzant?

Who needs to be licensed as a therapist when you can call yourself a “life coach” and do whatever you want?!

Dr. Phil?

He’s not even an MD, people!

OK, fine. Oprah’s track record as a spiritual leader is a mixed bag. But somehow, her ultimate message that it’s possible to transcend suffering, and even find beauty in that transcendence, that we’re all capable of doing good in the world and that spreading love and light is a worthwhile cause, has gotten through and made her a figure who inspires intense admiration.

And it’s because for decades, we sat in front of the television on weekday afternoons and took part in The Church of Oprah. She’s flawed, sure. But Mrs Which is a powerful visualization of the best Oprah has given us. I’m glad there’s an image that so fittingly captures her contributions with a swoosh of wind or a wrinkle of time.

Liner Notes

1. Dear nitpickers: Do not @ me with mentions of 30 Rock, All-American Girl and Gabriel’s Fire. Those are TV shows, not movies. K tnx!

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.