Oprah struck the perfect tone at the Golden Globes, on a night when almost no one else could
Her speech remembered the women our society too often forgets
I don’t know what we’d do without the first black woman to be awarded the Cecil B. DeMille award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. But, by God, what I know for sure is this: We don’t deserve Oprah Winfrey.
Sunday night, Oprah pretty much rendered the rest of the Golden Globes irrelevant, glib and forgettable. The night was supposed to be serious and glamorous but not frivolous, and somehow also funny.
Mostly, it was just weird.
There was a distance and an awkwardness to the show, which is usually a rollicking good time because its guests are spit-shined and boozed up. Sunday’s event had to adjust for the sobering revelations driven by months of #MeToo, days of #TimesUp and an endless parade of expensive black protest dresses. The pendulum indicating the tone of the evening kept swinging wildly and not quite stopping anywhere that felt right, save for host Seth Meyers’ pull-no-punches opening monologue.
Even though #MeToo was the central focus of the evening, even though the movement’s creator, Tarana Burke, was in the room, there was an inescapable whiteness to the celebration. There were the multiple wins for Big Little Lies, which took on the well-heeled lives of quiet desperation led by rich white women in Monterey, California, and barely bothered to consider the details of its one black character, played by Zoë Kravitz. It was also a predictably big night for the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which made women of color and the racism they face an afterthought. There were the multiple wins for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film whose worst problem may be that it advances the idea that being an incompetent buffoon of a policeman is somehow a worse character flaw than being a violent, power-abusing racist so long as he tries his best to capture somebody’s rapist.
And then Oprah, in a black velvet gown and hair that recalled the glory of her 1998 Vogue cover shot by Steven Meisel, swooped to the stage of the Beverly Hilton like a patronus, not just for Hollywood but for the nation, and delivered the speech we desperately needed to hear.
In 10 minutes, she told us a story that began with Sidney Poitier and the importance of feeling seen, crested with the recognition of invisible women and ended hopeful, joyous and inspiring. She remembered the oft-forgotten women who, she said, “have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
Oprah brought us back to earth and out of whatever alternate dimension the rest of the room seemed to be swimming through, and then lifted us up as though she’d been giving Barack Obama speech lessons. When she said, “Their time is up!” she spoke with the authority of a sexual assault survivor who believed what she was saying and made us believe it too.
She humbled us with her invocation of Recy Taylor, the woman who died recently at 97, never having experienced justice after she was brutally raped by six white men one night in 1944 and threatened with death if she spoke one word about what had happened. Oprah made sure the country knew that there are women who had not just their livelihoods but their very ability to live and breathe threatened by men more powerful than them. She recognized Rosa Parks as more than just a sweet lady who refused to give up her seat on a bus but rather as a woman who kicked off a movement for civil rights because she was tired of black women being violated freely and without consequence.
Oprah took all the rage and confusion and hurt and shame and frustration of the past few months and somehow, in her magical singularity, transformed it into not just a light but a beacon.
The full text of her speech:
In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I ever remembered. His tie was white, his skin was black — and he was being celebrated. I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But all I can do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidney’s performance in Lilies of the Field: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.”
In 1982, Sidney received the Cecil B. DeMille award right here at the Golden Globes and it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award. It is an honor—it is an honor and it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them and also with the incredible men and women who have inspired me, who challenged me, who sustained me and made my journey to this stage possible. Dennis Swanson who took a chance on me for A.M. Chicago. Saw me on the show and said to Steven Spielberg, she’s Sophia in The Color Purple. Gayle who’s been a friend and Stedman who’s been my rock.
I want to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. We know the press is under siege these days. We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.
But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.
And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.
Their time is up.
Their time is up. And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, “me too.” And every man — every man who chooses to listen.
In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. 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.
So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “me too” again.