David Zurawik

Oprah Winfrey Golden Globes speech a moving jolt of moral authority

The Golden Globes award telecast is not one of the first places I would go looking for moral authority.

Historically a somewhat boozy event hosted by a group that once seemed more a public relations arm of Hollywood than a journalistic organization, it was not exactly a font of righteousness


But Oprah Winfrey's Golden Globes speech Sunday night was a shot of moral authority for a culture desperately feeling the need for a powerful voice to provide some righteous leadership.

And did she ever provide it in a speech that ran just under 8 ½ minutes as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award.


Social media lit up before it was barely over with talk of Winfrey running for president in 2020.

She tied her address to the #TimesUp hashtag theme of the evening with women speaking up about sexual harassment, which linked it to the larger cultural and historical moment we are witnessing with women and some men challenging patriarchy in all realms of American life.

It was a brilliant speech that not only tapped that tidal wave of emotion in society, but also referenced civil rights, race and the great need today for a free and strong press to try and hold our leaders accountable.

More: Read Oprah Winfrey's Golden Globes speech »

But as large as her themes were, Winfrey's genius, as always, was in the way she rooted her message in specific details of her life.

"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 began. "She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: 'The winner is Sidney Poitier.'"

She touched on race, but the speech was still mainly about her location as someone in the audience like us watching at home Sunday night.

"I'd never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, 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 people's houses," she said.


And then, in the next paragraph, she shifts to the ground on which she now stands as a famous woman and cultural icon receiving the award. And Winfrey, who was an anchor for WJZ in Baltimore in the late 1970s and early '80s, accepts the moral responsibility that comes with such stature.

"In 1982, Sidney received the Cecil B. DeMille award right here at the Golden Globes and 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 this same award. It is an honor—it is an honor and it is a privilege …"

And from that high ground on which she stood Sunday night, she delivered her message to girls watching her.

"I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights," she said

"So I want all the girls watching here, 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."

You can parse almost every line of the speech and marvel at its power, timeliness and resonance with where the culture is at today.


She told the story from 1944 of Recy Taylor, "a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she'd attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church."

After linking Taylor to Rosa Parks, she concluded the story and delivered the moral message.

"The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up."

You could feel her moral authority electrify that audience as it rose to its feet and cheered her words. But she was not done.

"Their time is up," she repeated once more. "And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks' heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it's here with every woman who chooses to say, "Me too." And every man—every man who chooses to listen."

With those words, Oprah Winfrey took a Sunday night awards show and turned it into a Sunday morning church service.


The way her speech is shooting through the culture is no accident.

One of my favorite things about the Globes telecast Sunday was how relatively small a role Donald Trump played. I dreaded an evening of Hollywood elites one after another ridiculing Trump, as much as the ridicule might be deserved.

But the vacuum in moral authority and righteous leadership that many in this country are so desperately feeling because of Trump's behavior during his first year in office, is in part what made her speech resonate so powerfully.

Yes, it was a brilliant and moving speech, but part of its power is in the tremendous thirst some of us feel for such a clarion call to righteousness. That's why there is a such a buzz today about Winfrey running for president in 2020.

The Golden Globes telecast is not one of the first places I would go looking for the next president of the United States. But some viewers believe that is who and what they saw Sunday night on TV when Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award.