oprah the butler

The Weinstein Company

It’s not even July yet. Do we really have to start with Oscar stuff now? The only other people mentioning this fall’s crop of potential award-winners do so with hilarious disclaimers like “It’s never too early to semi-blindly predict the rest of the year’s critical darlings” or “It’s only June, but let’s take an ignorant stab at the Oscar nominations anyway, shall we?” Oh, how I wish such a disclaimer could have run at the top of this paragraph.

But now there is news. News that does not mention any explicit Oscar-mongering, yet carries the faint swooshing noise of Oprah Winfrey, polishing her mantle in anticipation of Oscar number two (and the first one was an honorary humanitarian award, so it barely counts as it is).

Selma, the Winfrey-produced, Ava DuVernay-directed, David Oyelowo-starring biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has a release date: December 25, 2014, for a limited release, and then January 9, 2015, for the wide expansion. And that kind of a release schedule, or course, is what you do when you want to see your film dented and eventually destroyed under a shower of heavy awards statuettes. Last year, Dallas Buyers Club, Her and 12 Years a Slave went for the late-year, limited-then-wide release pattern. Today, all those movies can proudly proclaim “Academy Award Winner” on their various Blu-ray and DVD covers.

There was another piece of news contained within Paramount’s press release: not only is Winfrey producing the film, but she’s gone ahead and joined the cast. She’ll be playing Annie Lee Cooper, a noted Civil Rights activist who “tried to register to vote and was unfairly denied by the sheriff.”

Which is putting things a little lightly, because Cooper’s unfair denial was really a billy club (or a cattle prod; the history books are uncertain) to the back of the neck. Note that Cooper was 55 at the time. But there’s a reason she’s in all those history books: after receiving said blow, Cooper turned around and threw a right hook to the sheriff’s jaw. She was thrown in jail, then thrown out of jail (for fear of retaliatory violence from law enforcement), then immortalized in an MLK speech. Probably not a huge role, screen-time wise, for Winfrey, but it’s bound to be memorable.

And this is also kind of a moot point in general, because the Winfrey-Cooper thing hit the online newsstands last week.

Seriously though, before this announcement, we didn’t really know anything concrete about this year’s Oscar race. Boyhood, maybe? Joy also has a Christmas release date, and the Academy loves throwing award statuettes at David O. Russell, so that’s probably a decent shot. Now, we know something real. Selma wants that Oscar. It wants it bad. So much so that it may skip a large portion of this year’s festivals and circuits, because Selma is still in the process of shooting and we’re barely six months away from release date time. Unless Winfrey starts ripping up union handbooks and enforcing 36-hour workdays, Selma probably won’t be screening-ready until the very edge of release time

But on the plus side, the combination of DuVernay and Oyelowo worked liked gangbusters in 2012’s Middle of Nowhere. So having the Oprah Winfrey Hype Train propel them into the spotlight is probably for everyone’s benefit. Especially theirs. Who couldn’t use an Oscar and a pile of awards season cash?


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