Oprah Winfrey, the TV star, is living her best life. At least it certainly seemed that way Wednesday evening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Our lord and savior was in New York to talk, in some respects, about her lord and savior.
She premiered the first episode of her upcoming OWN drama series Greenleaf, about a pastor’s family at a Tennessee megachurch, and how a tragedy forces them all to reckon with their faith and sins. It’s Winfrey’s first recurring role on a scripted series in two decades, and, whoo-ee, it’s a doozy.
The first episode of Greenleaf alone lobs hints of storylines that deal with religious corruption, crises of faith, familial warring, infidelity, incest, suicide, homosexuality, and all the cover-ups and secrets required to keep all those things under wraps when they involve the pastor’s family at a megachurch with over 4,000 members at worship.
Winfrey’s plays Aunt Mavis, the keeper of those secrets and family outsider, who enlists the help of the show’s faith-questioning heroine, Gina (a stunning Merle Dandridge), to help her bring it all to light.
“Being able to do this show is a dream come true for me,” Winfrey told a riotous crowd at the Tribeca Tune-In screening.
It’s not just that Winfrey is clearly having a ball playing the show’s magnetic rabble-rouser. (In the opening credits for the first episode, Winfrey is listed as “special guest star.”) It’s that she’s tangibly joyous about what she thinks the show will be able to do for her OWN network.
Original content brings it onto a whole new playing field, and judging by the audience’s hoot-and-holler reaction—all culminating in a fit of tears at the emotional last scene—it should be a home run.
“When I started this network five years ago every word that was written, the narrative for OWN was struggling, struggling, struggling network,” she said. “Our team got together and had the dream of being able to do this kind of scripted television.”
She credited Tyler Perry, who created, writes, directs, and produces the hit OWN soap opera The Haves and the Have Nots, with laying the foundation for the network in the scripted space. “I can do it and I can do it cheaper than anyone,” is what Winfrey said Perry told her. And from that foundation the network is now able to move onto Greenleaf and, later this year, Queen Sugar, which was created by Selma director Ava DuVernay.
“What this taught me is that dreams, as big as I can dream and as big the dream that God has held for me, things get even bigger and better,” Winfrey said, preaching to an audience soaking up her sermon. And it wasn’t the first time the post-screening Q&A became a bit of a religious experience.
Winfrey appeared alongside Greenleaf’s creator Craig Wright, director Clement Virgo, and stars Merle Dandridge, Lynn Whitfield, and Keith David.
They kicked off the event with the story of Winfrey’s first meeting with Wright—an alum of Six Feet Under and Dirty Sexy Money, two shows Greenleaf is a clear descendant of. Wright explained to Winfrey that before he made it in Hollywood, he was a preacher himself.
“As a joke I said, ‘Was it a black church?’” Winfrey laughed. “And we had this conversation about church and what the black church in particular means in our community. We started going back and forth about it and he said, ‘That sounds like a series.’ I said, ‘I think it is.’”
The narrative would revolve around the return of this family’s prodigal daughter, a woman who didn’t just leave her family behind when she left them but also her faith. To call the homecoming dramatic would be the understatement of the century.
Midway through the premiere there’s a dinner scene that was 13 pages long and featured a dozen characters—each alternately crying, yelling, chastising, pleading, deceiving, and believing over the course of it, and all of it centered around questions about the daughter’s commitment to Christianity. Virgo compared the script to a Tennessee Williams play, telling Wright, “You’ve created Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with these characters.”
“What I keep telling people about this show is it’s not a soap, it’s not a sermon,” Wright said. “It’s a story about a woman who returns home because she misses the family and the faith that she left behind.”
The show’s MVP, at least in the premiere episode, is Lynn Whitfield, who plays the megachurch’s regal, calculating first lady Mae Greenleaf. For her part, Whitfield was the MVP of the panel, too—and a panel with Oprah Winfrey on it, to boot. When Winfrey told her, “You’re the only person I wanted to do it,” Whitfield replied shocked. “Is that true?” she said, pausing to laugh. “Say it again.”
She also hit on what makes the show, which tonally calls on elements of Dynasty, Melrose Place, Empire, and Tyler Perry’s most serious dramas, seem powerful. And she elucidated why, for all of its lofty discussion of religion, it never seems too broad or convoluted.
“What I loved is that this is a story we’ve not seen on television,” she said.
Then, to escalating applause and with perfect poise: “What we get to say in this piece is it’s not the messenger that you must follow. You have to continue to follow the message, and build your personal relationship. Because we don’t know who we’re following. And we need to question who we are following and what we really believe. So for me to be a part of a show that says you better keep your personal relationship with God together, it’s such an honor for me to be a part of that.”
Sure, there’s a heavy-handedness to the show at times. There is with any soap opera (which, despite Wright’s claims, this very much is), so you can imagine the level a show in that genre reaches when God becomes a character. But for the explosive emotions and tornado of “issues” the characters face, the show escapes any bait to cross into camp.
“I think a problem when we try to connect to religion in the white church, inevitably it degenerates either into satire or sanctimony,” Wright said. “Even though you’re criticizing and questioning the faith, this show takes the faith really seriously and respects it. It doesn’t seem silly. It doesn’t seem laughable or foolish. It actually seems deeply grounded and important to the lives of the characters, so you take their struggles seriously.”
Perhaps we should expect such nuance. This is Oprah Winfrey, after all. Trading in high emotions and channeling all of our spirituality is—at least I’ve heard—a bit of her specialty.
“All my work is all about the same thing,” she said. “It’s about showing people new ways of seeing themselves and seeing the problems and flaws and dysfunctions that we all have, and shining a little light on that, being able to lift that just enough that you can see yourself in that.”
Pausing to punctuate, she concludes: “This is what I’m always striving for no matter what I’m doing.”