Like Hillary Clinton and her fateful “deplorables” comment, Oprah Winfrey knew she stepped in it after tweeting a hopeful message about Donald Trump’s presidency earlier this week—to the vocal dismay of the internet.
“Everybody take a deep breath!” the media mogul tweeted on Thursday to her 34.8 million followers, posting a screenshot from Trump’s White House meeting with the outgoing President Obama. “Hope Lives!” The tweet did not go over well.
Winfrey gamely acknowledged her misconstrued optimism Sunday afternoon in Beverly Hills during a Q&A with Golden Globe-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The duo sat down to discuss the Selma director’s Netflix documentary 13th, a searing look at the racially-fueled cultural and institutional lineage linking slavery to the modern-day business of mass incarceration.
“I couldn’t breathe after the election,” Winfrey told the packed audience at the Peltz Theater at the Museum of Tolerance in Beverly Hills. She said she and DuVernay, executive producers together on DuVernay’s acclaimed OWN series Queen Sugar, called each other Tuesday night as the election results sank in and sat holding their phones in stunned silence.
The next morning Winfrey, who endorsed Clinton’s campaign in June, tuned in to CNN’s coverage of President-elect Trump’s historic meeting with President Obama. Instead of the kind of antagonism Trump’s campaign had levied during the election, she was surprised to see the two men sitting civilly together. By her estimation Trump even seemed “humbled,” Winfrey later told the Associated Press.
“I was expecting tension, awkwardness, and strain,” Winfrey explained Sunday. “When I saw them sitting together and I actually took a picture of the screen, it said, ‘President-elect Trump: ‘Honored To Meet Obama.’ And President Obama was being so gracious. I heard Donald Trump say, ‘He’s a good man.’ I heard Donald Trump say, ‘I’m going to be seeking his counsel.’ I literally went, ‘I can breathe now.’”
“My mistake, and this is what I know to be true, is that you can never talk about everybody,” she added. “Don’t talk about ‘What you should do.’ You can only speak for yourself. What I should have said was, ‘I just took a breath.’ What I said was, ‘Everybody take a breath—#HopeLives.’ I thought to say, Civility Lives—because this was more civil than I expected it to be.”
“I was talking about the transition of power,” said Winfrey, who joked to DuVernay that she’d be keeping her opinions on Trump to herself after the uproar her single tweet caused. “Not, ‘Take a deep breath about… everything.’ No. Not at all.”
DuVernay is back in the Oscar conversation two years after her celebrated civil rights drama Selma earned a Best Picture nomination and took home the Oscar for Best Song. She’s currently directing Winfrey in the Madeleine L’Engle adaptation A Wrinkle In Time for Disney, a high-profile project that marks the first time any woman of color has helmed a $100 million movie. 13th, available now on Netflix, is one of the streaming platform’s Best Documentary Oscar hopefuls this year—and, like Selma, arrived with an urgent sense of relevance in a tumultuous time in America.
Winfrey and DuVernay agreed that neither are quite ready to say the words “President Trump” or “President-elect Trump” out loud. Later in the evening, Trump appeared on 60 Minutes promising to deport “probably two million, it could be even three million” undocumented immigrants—many of whom will be identified, Trump has promised, on the basis of their criminal records.
But in a country where African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites and African Americans and Hispanics account for 58 percent of the incarcerated population, the question of how America and the federal government have come to define criminality is central to DuVernay’s galvanizing documentary.
“When Trump—I can’t call him President yet, can’t say ‘Mr.’ yet… I’m in the Museum of Tolerance, I’m trying to be tolerant,” said DuVernay, drawing laughs and applause. “When he goes on 60 Minutes tonight it’s been previewed that he’s going to talk about criminals and deportation. The whole idea of what is criminal, how crime and race are used to further certain ideas, agendas, policies, for profit, for political gain, for power… once you see this, you won’t hear those words the same way again so we won’t react to them the way we have, which is with complacency and to go right over it.”
“Stocks for the private prison industry rose by over 50 percent the day after the election,” DuVernay said, “so folks are betting on the fact that he will not just continue but increase that part of the business. We call it the prison industrial complex because it is an industry, it is a business, it is a profit center... Everything that we talk about in this film, under him and the policies that he’s advocated, will continue or worsen—unless we demand something different.”
Both Winfrey and DuVernay searched for positivity as they looked toward the future, asked by fans via social media what next steps 13th encourages America to take. The film, Winfrey, urged, “is a wake-up call.”
“I think a lot of us who’ve been apathetic or just not very focused on the levers of power have to now be very tuned in to this, and every aspect of the things we say we care about as forward-thinking progressive people,” offered DuVernay. “We don’t have forward-thinking progressive people in power any more across any of the branches of government. It’s going to take those of us who believe in this to make our voices known, be loud about it, and never give up.”
“It’s going to be a long four years… hopefully just four.”