Oprah Winfrey: I don't have one face that I present to the white world

By KAREN BUTLER, United Press International  |  Aug. 7, 2013 at 2:57 PM
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NEW YORK, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. media mogul and occasional actress Oprah Winfrey says she doesn't tailor her speech or demeanor depending on the race of the people around her.

Winfrey made the comment at a cast press conference Monday for the new film "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a family drama based on a true story and set against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement.

Asked how they related to African-American characters in the movie -- who were relaxed as themselves around black people, but acted another way in front of white people in an effort to quell racial tension and advance in the workplace -- the film's director and stars offered differing opinions.

"This is the face that we show the white people," co-star Terrence Howard quipped at the press conference, which was held in a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

"What we're bringing to light here is important to me because I think as I grew in Hollywood, I had to put on a face," said Daniels, who also helmed "Precious" and "The Paperboy."

"I had to talk with a certain diction. I had to be a certain way. I had to dress a certain way," the filmmaker said. "I had to present myself in a certain light, so that I could get ahead. It wasn't until I found myself and be myself -- and Obama was elected -- that I was able to be me and the two faces met."

"I don't feel that at all," Winfrey said. "I feel that I have made a living being myself. When I was 19 years old, I interviewed Jesse Jackson as a young reporter in Nashville, Tenn. And he said to me then, 'One of your gifts is being able to be yourself on TV.' So, when I moved to Chicago and I was up against the then-'King of Talk' [Phil Donahue], my boss at the time called me into his office and said, 'You know you'll never be able to be him, so just go on the air and be yourself.' So, I have made a career out of my own authenticity. I don't have one face that I present to the white world or the black world. I talk to my dogs the same way I'm talking to you. It's always been the same to me.

"And I say that with great pride and homage and honor to the people who were the generation before me."

She added this was one of the reasons she wanted to be in "The Butler," which casts her as the wife of a trusted White House servant, who works for seven presidents from 1952 to 1986. Forest Whitaker plays the title character.

"I am the daughter of a maid and my grandmother was a maid and her mother was a maid and her mother was a slave," Winfrey said.

"So, the domestic worker in the speech Dr. King gives to my son in the movie, I feel validated by their courage. I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way and the fact that there is another generation of Freedom Riders who, because of evolution and growth and change, decided, 'We're not going to do that any more.' I think that was also necessary. So, both wars were necessary at the time. ... But because of the courage, because of the conviction of an entire generation on whose shoulders we all stand on, I never had to [act differently around white people than I do around black people.]"

"That's the reason why you are Oprah Winfrey," Daniels told her. "Because, unfortunately, many of the people that I know in my experience have had to do that."

"Obviously, you would. As a black man," Winfrey said.

"I love you, Oprah, and I love exactly what you said because I feel the same way about a lot of aspects of my life, but there is the very aggressive aspect of my life that I have a very specific face for," Cuba Gooding Jr. added, noting he behaves differently when he plays ice hockey -- a "predominantly white sport" -- than he does when he boxes and works out at the gym with "predominantly black and Hispanic" men.

"Then there is a very different face that I wear with my children in these very expensive schools that I have them in. And there is a very specific face that I wear as a celebrity. And I think the film is indicative of the faces that black men had to wear in this time, specifically in the South, specifically as domesticated and professional people. And then there were also other faces that David Oyelowo's character had to wear around people that he, obviously, at some point had a disconnect with, with the storyline with Yaya DaCosta's character being that of the Black Panthers. So, the black male in this time of the civil rights movement had to wear many faces, that we have been talking about the last few days.

"I think the Trayvon Martin situation was another thing that sparked another reminder that we do need to wear certain faces that represent a mentality indicative of our surroundings," Gooding said, referring to the unarmed black teen shot and killed last year by George Zimmerman, an Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer Martin attacked for following him through a gated community where numerous burglaries had been reported.

Zimmerman was tried and acquitted of murder this summer, sparking protests across the country.

"Terrence spoke very wonderfully yesterday in terms of if Trayvon had recognized the face that he needed to wear at that particular moment it might have been a very different outcome," Gooding said. "So, I think what attracted me to this movie was the duality of the existence of the African-American male through this time period that was so wonderfully detailed by Mr. Lee Daniels in the civil rights movement. ...

"Faces are a theme in this movie that can't be ignored or slighted and I think it's something that even though we all wish that we could be as open as certain personalities, we, as African-Americans, still deal with this very real situation related to the many faces that are required."

Co-starring Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and James Marsden, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" opens nationwide Aug. 16.

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