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The entertainment mogul accepted the annual Cecil B. DeMille Award on Sunday night, becoming the first black woman — and the 15th woman overall — to receive the honor since it was first handed out in 1952.
“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee, watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards,” she said at the Beverly Hills awards show after a standing ovation. “She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: ‘The winner is Sidney Poitier.'” (Poitier won the best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1964 and became the first black man to be presented with the DeMille Award in 1982.)
“Up to the stage came the most elegant man I’d ever seen,” Winfrey explained. “I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried very many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other peoples’ houses.” But all she could do, she said, was quote Poitier and say, “Amen, amen.”
She added, “It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given the same award. It is an honor and it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them.”
Winfrey continued her speech by calling out a press that is “under siege” and a climate where women are being empowered to speak up and say “me too” — and men are listening.
“I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have, and I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories,” she said.
Turning talk to the sexual harassment prevention initiative Time’s Up and the many women who are backing the movement who were in the room, Winfrey explained that their fight transcends Hollywood.
“I want, tonight, to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue,” she continued to a rapt audience. “They’re the women whose names we’ll never know.”
Those names include Recy Taylor, who died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday and without justice. Taylor was walking home from church in Alabama in 1944 when she was abducted and raped by six white men. The case, in the Jim Crow era, never went to trial and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
“For too long women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” she said to loud cheers. Eleven years after being called upon to investigate Taylor’s case in her role as secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama, chapter of the NAACP, Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver, and that choice “is now in every woman saying ‘me too,’ and every man who chooses to listen,” said Winfrey.
She continued, earning her second of three ovations: “I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.”
The annual DeMille award honors those with “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Recent recipients include Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Woody Allen, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty.
Winfrey was introduced to the stage by her collaborator and friend Reese Witherspoon, who narrated a montage of her life accomplishments. “There’s only one person’s name who is a verb, an adjective and a feeling, and that is Oprah,” said the Big Little Lies star. “When you say her name, everybody stops and listens.” Speaking of their time working together on the upcoming Wrinkle in Time adaptation, Witherspoon said one of the things she learned from Oprah was how to be the only female boardmember at a huge company. “Thank you for your powerful contributions to the world of film and television. In this and everything you do, you’ve changed our lives.”
Winfrey most recently starred in HBO’s Emmy-nominated The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and will next play Mrs. Which in Ava DuVernay’s Wrinkle in Time in March. She is a previous Golden Globe winner, nabbing the award in 1986 for her role in The Color Purple, and was also featured in Lee Daniels’ The Butler and DuVernay’s Selma.
Winfrey hosted the award-winning talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years and is the chairman and CEO of OWN network. She is also the founder of O, The Oprah Magazine and oversees Harpo Films. This year marks the 10th anniversary of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which Winfrey established in 2007 to provide education for academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Seth Meyers hosted the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards, which took place at the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 7.
Ahead of the show, the host had said, “If you write a joke about Oprah, especially on this night, you would want to make sure that it would be a joke that Cecil B. DeMille would tell. And if you don’t think it’s up to his high standards, just leave it alone.”
Earlier in the night, This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown also made history as the first black actor to win for best lead in a TV drama. He thanked creator Dan Fogelman for “writing a role for a black man that could only be played by a black man,” adding that “being seen and appreciated” for who he is “makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or anybody who looks like me.”
Tune in after the telecast for The Hollywood Reporter and Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s official aftershow, live on Twitter.
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