by Mark Schumann
Father of Three
Every time Oprah makes a movie, I can’t stop wondering, “what if”?
What if — instead of losing to Anjelica Huston — Oprah had won the Oscar she deserved for The Color Purple in 1985? What if — after that Oscar win — she had starred in a series of character-driven films created to teach and touch people as only Oprah can? And what if — instead of choosing to change people’s lives with compelling talk on television — she had become the beloved storyteller of people through narrative film?
We may never know. And, so, we savor each time Oprah reminds us what a powerful actress she can be.
Winfrey’s latest venture into movies, and her first starring role since Beloved in 1998, makes me again imagine the performances this actress can give. From her first moments in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks she dominates the screen with a performance of depth and range, humor and rage, as she brings to life a woman’s traumatic hunger to learn more about her mother. In many moments, big and small, loud and quiet, Winfrey makes me want more, more about her character, more about the actress. She commands with an authentic presence that reaches beyond the role she creates.
Of course, the material perfectly suits Winfrey’s skill. She plays Deborah, a woman who has lived her life in the shadow of the mother who died as a young woman. With little memory of her mother, Deborah relies on what others remember and what the world reports. When her mother was sick with ovarian cancer, physicians removed her cells for study. Over the years, those cells contributed to some of the most dramatic medical discoveries in history, from the vaccine for polio to treatments for AIDS. This woman made a huge difference in the lives of millions. But she was unknown to the daughter she loved.
In real life, Deborah shared her story with writer Rebecca Skloot in a best-selling book. While the author went into detail about the medical dimensions of the story, director George C. Wolfe chooses to focus on the relationships in the film. While his choices may give the actors the chance to shine, the lack of context robs the story of some of its depth. This lack of context makes some moments challenging to follow. The film’s tight running time forces Wolfe to compress people and places into rapid sequences. But none of these narrative compromises rob Winfrey of the chance to shine. She is, simply, magnificent.
One sequence, especially, reminds me why I love to watch Oprah on film. She and Skloot, well played by Rose Byrne, find themselves in a motel room in rural Virginia. The pressure of revealing what Deborah knows about her mother, the urgency to discover, the tragedy of loss become too much for her to handle and, for a few minutes, she simply loses control. For the character, the moment is a breakthrough, an opportunity to let go of her demons. For the actress, the moment is also a revelation because of the restraint she demonstrates. As Oprah disappears into the character, we never sense she’s acting. We feel the character’s pain.
On film, Henrietta Lacks recreates a moment in history we should remember. Through this lens, the fabulous Oprah Winfrey reminds us there are many ways she can touch people’s lives. Just put her in front of a camera.
(The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, running 1 hour, 33 minutes, is rated TV MA for some language. Four Popcorn Buckets. The film shows on HBO as well as HBO On Demand and HBO Go.)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Film Nutritional Value:
- Content: High. This touching look at the connections children hunger for reminds us of the meaning that mothers bring to the world.
- Entertainment: High. Thanks to the performance from Oprah Winfrey, the character of a woman searching for truth about her mother rings with truth.
- Message: High. Although the film shortcuts its way through some details, its overall impact clearly expresses the gift that mothers bring to their children and many others.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to share a meaningful film as a family is welcome, especially on Mother’s Day weekend.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers an insightful look at how people cope with the mysteries and disappointments of life.
Oprah Winfrey shines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
As we savor Oprah Winfrey’s fine work in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we can easily find another demonstration of her acting skill.
Although Winfrey’s role in this history lesson from director Lee Daniels may be small, the impact she creates as a mother who deeply cares is strong. One more time, Winfrey makes us want to see more of her screen.
Daniels’ meaningful film reminds us, too, how easily people overlook the journeys that define our country. While years and miles have passed since the early days of the Civil Rights movement in America, the daring and courage of many in the 1950s through 1970s still make us proud. And from history we can learn what must change for people to continue to progress.
The Butler offers a meaningful lesson of the journeys too easy to forget in the comfort of present day. Using a framework of one man’s connection to destiny, Daniels offers a view far more detailed examination than the film’s advertisements would suggest. This is not another drop-in visit to the White House from Forrest Gump with his box of chocolates. With great care and restraint, Daniels delivers a serious review of the heroic efforts to create social progress at a time when, in the highest house in the land, the reliance on stereotypes prevailed. This detailed, and at times ironic, parallel in history offers a clear view of how slowly change occurs when leaders resist the need to change.
Inspired by a Washington Post article on Eugene Allen, a butler who served eight U.S. Presidents, the film follows the historical journey of one family during turbulent decades in the United States. The fictionalized butler, now named Cecil Gaines, begins his tenure in the White House just as President Eisenhower intervenes in the efforts of nine students to attend school in Little Rock in 1957, and continues through Ronald Reagan’s resistance to confront racial issues in South Africa in the 1980s. Along the way, we observe his meaningful exchanges with just about every man who occupies the job, from a challenged Kennedy to a smug Johnson to a defiant Nixon. Through these glimpses, Daniels shows us how the complexities of race can confuse the most determined of leaders.
As interesting as these public moments may be, the home life Daniels paints for Gaines gives The Butler its drive. From his turbulent relationship with his wife, to his efforts to raise his sons, Gaines emerges as someone as emotionally structured in his expectations for his family as he is disciplined in his work. Daniels asks how a man can be so willing to play a subservient role each day while inspiring his sons to selflessly challenge and serve their country? What about his choices permit his sons to make their own daring decisions? And how can such strong personalities reconcile their differences at a time when differences define a country? By tightly focusing on the family’s reactions to the times, the director links what a country experiences to what every family may fear.
As the character who anchors the story, Forrest Whitaker shines in a performance of power, heart and conviction. This intensely likable actor never hesitates to reveal Cecil’s weaknesses as he celebrates the man’s humanity. Even more memorable is Winfrey in her first film performance since Beloved in 1998. As Gloria Gaines, a woman caught between her demons and hopes, Winfrey delivers an understated, powerful characterization born of quiet moments.
Sadly, the challenges this film depicts continue to haunt our current world. The Butler emerges as an important reminder that we only move ahead if we each make a commitment to take positive steps every day.
And it’s a wonderful chance to see Oprah shine. Again.