There was the young man who stood up and asked Oprah Winfrey if she would be his mentor. There was the older woman who asked if Ms. Winfrey would be willing to work with orphans in the Ukraine. There was an actress welling up.
No, it wasn’t live from the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show, it was live from the Toronto Film Festival, where Ms. Winfrey and a posse of power African Americans descended over the weekend to promote Precious, the film—based on the harrowing novel Push by Sapphire—that has everyone murmuring Oscar, and that Winfrey executive produced with Tyler Perry.
For days now, Toronto has been devoted to—and overrun by—a combination of arty filmmakers, industry players, and Hollywood celebrities. But on Sunday morning, the mood changed dramatically with the arrival of Oprah and her lineup of divas, who waltzed into the Four Seasons at nine in the morning, posing for cameras and more or less bringing the hotel to a standstill. (The night before, when Winfrey made an appearance at the Up in the Air premiere, she caused a bigger stir than George Clooney.)
The Oprah push for Precious continued in Toronto, where Winfrey said, in her Word of the Lord baritone: “It is so raw. It will suck the air out of the room at the end of the film, and that’s a good thing.”
In anticipation of the big O—who was participating in a Precious press conference with the film’s cast and filmmakers—a phalanx of hotel staffers, dressed in stiff black suits and outfitted with headsets and walkie talkies, huddled like a team of corporate football players. Red ropes were strapped up. Journalists were told, in so many words, to bug off.
And then in they came. Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, and The View’s Sherri Shepherd, who star in the film; Mary J. Blige, who wrote music for the movie; Sapphire; director Lee Daniels, to name a few. The only one missing was Mo’Nique, another cast member, who was “at home eating potato chips,” Daniels joked. (Actually, she was busy shooting another film.)
As Winfrey—wearing a purple dress and matching lipstick, her hair gamely tied up in a ponytail—smiled with steely sweet professionalism in the direction of the madly snapping cameras, the moderator underscored just what exactly was going on here.
“This is historic—I’m just gonna say it,” he said. “We’re here to talk about what is already the most important American film of the year”—one, he went to say, that was “the product of a uniquely African-American vision. As I said: historic.”
Even more historic was, that night, when the festival held a lottery to allocate tickets to media outlets planning on covering the red carpet for the Precious screening. Why? Because the expected presence of Ms. Winfrey caused a never-before-seen avalanche of requests.
Winfrey’s effect on books, by now, needs no elaboration. Being selected by Oprah’s Book Club sends book sales skyrocketing and virtually guarantees bestseller status.
But what will her endorsement mean for a film (besides a flooded red carpet)? Lionsgate, which is releasing Precious, is about to find out as it prepares for the rollout of Precious, beginning in November.
For Daniels, who produced Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, it’s simple. “I do stuff that nobody thinks is commercial. And I just keep digging a deeper hole. Just when I finish with a pedophile, here comes a fat girl who’s abused!” he told The Daily Beast. For him, having Oprah back the film means more than just “two people” will see it.
Sarah Siegel-Magness, who produced Precious along with Daniels and her husband, Gary Magness, agreed. Oprah, she said, means “a whole other ball game.”
Then factor in Perry, a force—and media empire—in his own right, whose influential following among African-American audiences, especially older women, just brought him his second o. 1-opening film last weekend, with I Can Do Bad All By Myself, which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in.
A different league from the small, indie route, indeed.
Logistically, Winfrey’s support has meant that she’s been talking up the film on her talk show, where the filmmakers and cast will be making appearances, and where the Precious trailer debuted.
Symbolically, Winfrey gives a difficult, even shocking story, the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It’s like having Barney give the thumb’s up to Silence of the Lambs.
And to call Precious “difficult” is understating the facts. At the heart of the film is Precious herself, played by newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, who shed her “white girl voice,” as she jokingly calls it, to completely become the role of a young, uneducated woman who’s been molested by her father and is living alone with her abusive mother (Mo’Nique) in an environment where neither beauty or love are forthcoming, or even, for that matter, available.
The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year to great buzz, and the praise has continued in Toronto. But the real test will begin when Precious is released to audiences that don’t just include film lovers, beginning on November 6, in exclusive engagements.
Winfrey and Perry’s support does not come without potential drawbacks, however. Lionsgate is hoping that the message of the film, and the film itself, isn’t lost in their celebrity. Furthermore, whatever Winfrey’s magic in endorsing everything from books to future presidents, her track record with films isn’t as stellar. Other films Winfrey has promoted over the years, including The Great Debaters, with Denzel Washington, and Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel, in which she starred, have not been big hits.
There is also the potential stigma among discerning audiences that an Oprah movie is akin to a Hallmark card—heart-warming, but not necessarily high ART. Anyone familiar with the film would scoff at that assumption, but when it comes to courting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, who vote on the Oscars, this matters.
The Oprah push continued in Toronto, where Winfrey said, in her Word of the Lord baritone: “It is so raw. It will suck the air out of the room at the end of the film, and that’s a good thing. When I finished watching the film, the first thing I did was call Tyler so I could get Lee’s [Daniels] number and tell him how I was gasping for air.”
The air in the Four Seasons room grew a little less weighty when Shepherd broke into her schtick, and Carey amused the crowd with horror stories of playing a drab social worker; i.e., a woman who doesn’t wear makeup. “A friend said to me, ‘This is a Mariah Carey nightmare. You have every thing that you hate going on right now,’” Carey joked, adding: “The overhead lighting was not my friend.”
Turning to Patton, who plays an always smashing-looking schoolteacher, Carey said, “You gave HER the good lighting! I’m the one with the overhead light, let’s face it! She had the beauty lighting!”
Later, when things calmed down and Winfrey was asked by an audience member what the message of the film was, she proclaimed: “The message from this film is that none of us who sees the movie can now walk through that world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible to us again. That is the message.”
This was followed by murmurs of “mm-hmms” throughout the room, and some applause.
Winfrey had an even more transforming effect on 26-year-old Sidibe, who’d only met the TV empress for the first time the night before. Sitting in a hotel suite later in the day as she wrapped up a day of back-to-back interviews, Sidibe recalled what she described as “an out-of-body experience.”
“All I remember is meeting her, and the doves flying, of course. And then the violins playing, of course. And everything slowed down, and she hugged me. And she held my hand, and—that sounds so creepy! But, oh my God, Oprah is EVERYTHING! It absolutely felt like I should be curtseying to royalty.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.