Oprah Winfrey, as she is wont to do, just gave the most galvanizing, inspiring, and possibly life-saving speech in awards show history. (And, as she has been wont to do lately, just set off a powder keg of speculation about a potential presidential run.)
We had joked on Twitter that the speech was so emotional, a gale force of truth-to-power, that we’d need a week to recover from it. But the truth is that it was packed with such rousing, fist-raising immediacy that the only possible recourse is to take her words as marching orders and leap into action now.
“I want all the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon!” Winfrey bellowed over a Golden Globe Awards audience that was on its feet in ovation, hollering in support for a solid minute as the cultural icon spoke.
Winfrey was there Sunday to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her career of contributions to the entertainment industry. But as she has done time and again throughout that career, she used the platform to empower the rest of us.
Who knows if Ms. Winfrey is serious about any presidential future, but this would make a helluva launch speech should a campaign ever be considered. (Her partner Stedman Graham told The Los Angeles Times that “it’s up to the people” if she’d run: “She would absolutely do it.”)
Yet even pontificating in such hypothetical realms is reductive of her speech. It’s a speech that might just ensure that the #MeToo and Time’s Up conversation that has dominated recent months didn’t reach any sort of finish line at the Golden Globes, but instead passed the baton for a long, fruitful race ahead.
It takes someone who understands human connection in the uncanny way that Winfrey does to wring out the rest of our humanity, and encourage it to spread. That’s why her Globes speech transcended what critics could deride as the pageantry of the rest of the night’s activism. It didn’t speak to an echo chamber inside of one of Hollywood’s glitziest, most unrelatable rooms. It spoke to all of us.
In many ways, Winfrey’s speech was predetermined to be the highlight of Sunday’s telecast before the award show even started, with host Seth Meyers joking in his monologue, “Oprah Winfrey is receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award tonight. What a tremendous honor for Cecil B. DeMille.” The speech is coming one year after Meryl Streep gave her own charged, ultimately polarizing speech accepting the same lifetime achievement honor.
For all those who found Streep’s speech a bold call-to-arms and necessary state of the union, there was an equal, maybe even more vocal contingent exhausted that Streep would co-opt a Hollywood event with such pointed politics. But this year, especially against the backdrop of #MeToo and Time’s Up, there was no hand-wringing over the show being too political, but instead left us desperate to learn just how political it would be.
Winfrey managed to satisfy both: address uncertain times, condemn tyranny, champion journalism and free speech, and, most powerfully, crusade for justice for women and people of color who are marginalized, silenced, and denied justice. She was political, but universal.
She opened with a story about when she was a little girl in 1964, watching the Oscars from the linoleum floor of her mother’s house in Milwaukee, and hearing five words that changed history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.”
“I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that,” she said. “I’ve 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.”
In addition to being the first black man to win Best Actor at the Oscars, he also was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1982. With tears in her eyes, magnified by the glasses she wore to read the teleprompter, she passionately acknowledged the importance of this occasion, too: “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 the same award. It is an honor and it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them.”
While not as overtly political as Streep’s speech was last year, Winfrey made a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the abuse of power in the Trump administration and the necessity of a free press at a time when the government is mocking and silencing it, and in her brilliant way, armed all of us to fight against it.
“We all know that the press is under siege these days, but we also know that it is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and injustice. To tyrants, and victims, and secrets, and lies,” she said. “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.”
But where her speech soared is when she explained how the women in the Golden Globes ballroom are merely representatives of a constellation of victims in every industry, the voices for all of them. And it’s the story of Recy Taylor that brought the message home.
In 1944, Taylor was abducted, raped, and left on the side of the road by six white men while walking home from church. Her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker named Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case, and together they sought a justice that wasn’t attainable in the era of Jim Crow. Ten days ago, Taylor died just shy of her 98th birthday.
“She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men,” she said, the celebrities in the ballroom leaping to their feet. “For too long women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up!”
From this point on, her speech took on the power and spirituality of a sermon, an energy that blared through the TV.
“I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who have withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality that all of them seem to share is the ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights,” she said amidst nearly deafening applause.
“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 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 has to say, ‘Me too,’ again. Thank you.”
And with that she quickly left the stage, leaving the audience breathless with emotion.
Am I being hyperbolic? Quite possibly, and with no shame. That’s Winfrey’s power, to inspire others to live hyperbolically; to not just embrace, but trumpet their emotions; to use their existence and their truth as a tool for empowerment and change; to live loud, and generously. Because of this, few people have had the effect on culture and society that she has.
We’ll admit bias. Our phone case is a photo of Oprah Winfrey. Our desktop wallpaper is Oprah making a dramatic gesture to the heavens. For Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law bought me a framed photo of Oprah receiving the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, signed by Oprah, and I shed a tear. I talk about the producers featured on her Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes OWN reality series like they’re as famous as supporting characters on Friends. I threw something when she was snubbed by the Oscars for her performance in The Butler.
But if we’ve learned one thing from the last year, it’s that inspiring raucous, even if concerning, fandom is a vital tool for rallying political change and a cultural movement. Why not corral decades of that kind of unapologetic, unyielding fandom into a force that can speak to an exasperated, fed up moment; that can acknowledge and herald the truth; that can break down walls (hopefully before they’re built); and, finally, seize this new day that Winfrey promises is on the horizon.
Oprah 2020? Oprah right now.