Oprah’s Oscar Detractors Are Wrong

Oprah’s Oscar Detractors Are Wrong

The former queen of daytime television is set to get a humanitarian Oscar. But some Hollywood critics aren’t having it.

Published August 8, 2011

America’s favorite newly retired TV host Oprah Winfrey is set to receive an Oscar award this year. Though she’s not acted in or directed a film up for nomination, Winfrey is getting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her well-known charity work. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will bestow the honor at its “Governors Awards” ceremony on Nov 12. James Earl Jones will also be celebrated for his outstanding career.


Though Oprah is thought by many Americans to be almost godlike, some aren’t sure the beatified host deserves the Oscar. Patrick Goldstein, for instance, the Los Angeles Times’ go-to for Hollywood critique, called the move “boneheaded.” Goldstein even goes as far as saying the Academy’s decision was motivated by Oprah’s race, not her work: “Winfrey has clearly done lots of credible humanitarian work, but why should she be getting the Hersholt award—perhaps the most prestigious of all honorary Oscars—which in the past has gone to actors, executives and filmmakers with high-profile movie careers?” he asks. “Judging from my email traffic, the prevailing analysis is that the academy was reacting to the loss of face it suffered this year with the total absence of people of color from its Oscar nominations.”


Before everyone gets their Oscars in a bunch, it would behoove them to remember that, though she’s mostly known for her TV program, Winfrey has also produced and or acted in dozens of films since the ‘80s. She was even nominated for an acting Oscar for her portrayal of Sofia in 1985’s The Color Purple. She’s certainly no Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon—people who have made their whole careers out of acting—but neither is she a stranger to the movie biz.


Beyond that, formerly the world’s only Black billionaire, Winfrey has for years now been a major donor to lots of valuable charities. Besides giving out $51 million through her Oprah’s Angel Network, the media titan has also created a prestigious (though sometimes troubled) boarding school for underprivileged girls in South Africa. In 2005, Business Week named her the greatest Black philanthropist in American history.


Essentially, Oprah is a minor Hollywood player and a major philanthropic donor. Is she the ideal candidate for a Hersholt award, which usually goes to film bigwigs? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean she’s a totally wrong choice. And to suggest that she’s getting the award because she’s Black, and not because she’s donated tens of millions of dollars to good causes, is wrong.

(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Written by Cord Jefferson


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