Oscars: Oprah Winfrey Endorses 'Black Panther,' Calling It "Bigger Than a Movie"

Whether for books or political candidacies or Oscar hopefuls, there is no more coveted an endorsement than that of Oprah Winfrey, whose credibility and following enables her to mobilize the masses. Therefore, it was a major coup for Disney that Winfrey — on Monday night at the London West Hollywood hotel, in front of an audience of more than 100 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — publicly threw her support behind the studio's best picture contender Black Panther.

Winfrey could just as easily have used her celebrity to highlight one of 2018's other contenders that grapples with matters of race — Green Book, BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, Sorry to Bother You and the list goes on —  or any other subject, for that matter. But, at the request of Disney chief Bob Iger, a friend of some three decades, she agreed to share with Academy members the sentiments that she first shared via email with Iger after emerging from a screening of Black Panther. (You can watch video of her remarks here.)

As Winfrey recounted: "I just wanted to say that when I first saw Black Panther, I sent an email to my friend Bobby and said, 'Hi Bobby! Just saw it. It's worth everything I've heard and more. A phenomenon in every way, on every level. Makes me tear up to think that little black children will grow up with "Wakanda forever." It's game-changing, it's pride-making, it's dazzling, it's phenomenal.' That was my personal review."

Flanked by Black Panther's director-screenwriter Ryan Coogler; screenwriter Joe Robert Cole; producer Kevin Feige; stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya; composer Ludwig Göransson; film editors Michael P. Shawver and Debbie Berman; and executive producers Victoria Alonso and Louis D'Esposito, Winfrey continued: "I also know that throngs and throngs and so many people came, and came with their families, and then they went back and they got more family members, and then they went back and told their co-workers and their friends, because everybody recognized that something bigger than a movie was happening up on that screen. We all knew — those of us who have come from the culture and the history — how lit it was. It just gave us life! It gave us life! But it was so affirming for everyone who saw it because you knew that it was bigger than this moment — it was a cultural happening — and just to be in the theater was to be a part of all of that."

In closing, she added: "None of that could have happened without one man. You know, no matter how many thousands of people there are at Disney, the bottom line is, if he doesn't say 'yes,' it doesn't happen. I have admired and been a friend of Bob Iger's for a very long time, and am just so respectful of his leadership. And I know that this happened the way it happened because of his leadership, because he had the good sense to hire Ryan Coogler. And then to let him execute his vision. So we are thankful to you, Mr. Iger, for that."

Iger then disclosed — speaking off the cuff — how he had secured Winfrey's partnership in hosting the event: "About two to three weeks ago — I'm Bobby Iger, by the way — our studio asked me whether I would host a screening of Black Panther. I said, 'Sure, I would be glad to do that.' Then they said, 'Would you ask Oprah to join you?' Pause. 'Okay, I'll give it a shot.' So I emailed Oprah. She responded in 10 minutes. Now, Oprah and I have known each other for 30 years, and I am one of the more fortunate people in the world to consider Oprah a true friend. But I guarantee — you just heard her and it confirms this — she did not say 'yes' that fast because of me or because of our friendship. She said 'yes' that fast because of what she thought of this film."

He closed his toast as follows: "I have the great privilege of working for a company and in a business that has the ability to entertain the world, and I've been in this business for 45 years, and there have been a lot of really exhilarating moments, typically the result of great creative success or great commercial success or both. Now, in this case, we know Black Panther is both a creative and a commercial success. But, echoing what Oprah said, it was far more than that. The exhilaration that we all felt about this film was due to the fact that we believe it actually had an impact on the world. And it was because of boldness, daring to dream, defying conventional wisdom and, of course, putting it in the hands of an unbelievably gifted director, Ryan Coogler, who not only told a great story, but he brought an incredible vision to this film. That's why it became the phenomenon that it did, that's why it's had the impact on the world that it's had. And I'll leave you with this one adage, because Ryan Coogler exemplifies this adage, and that is, 'Extraordinary talent always trumps experience.' To Ryan Coogler and Black Panther, here's to you all!"

As of Monday, The Hollywood Reporter can confirm there were 7,902 members of the Academy who are eligible to vote — in both the nominations and final rounds — for the 91st Oscars. Only around 100, or a little over one percent of them, witnessed first-hand Winfrey's ringing endorsement of the film. So it remains to be seen if "the Oprah effect" — essentially, causing people to think and to chatter — will effectively boost the already promising prospects of Black Panther.