Friday, November 18, 2005

The Gospel According to Oprah

Marcia Z Nelson

In 2002, Oprah travelled to South Africa to produce a ‘Christmas Kindness’ show that aired in 2003 and was followed up in 2004. The 2003 Christmas show focused on AIDS orphans in South Africa and bluntly asked for assistance. ‘What I wanted for you to see is the extreme need for us, for everybody who hears this today, to do what you can to help,’ Oprah told viewers. The 2004 show followed up some of the stories presented in 2003, covering South African schools and social programs, and showed where $7 million, collected by Oprah’s Angel Network in response to the earlier show, had gone. Singer Alicia Keys and Brad Pitt appeared in 2004 to talk about AIDS and access to medication. Pitt was on tape but Keys appeared live to talk with Oprah, who gave the singer a cheque for $250,000 to support Keep a Child Alive, a program that provides AIDS medicine to African families. Keys said that having an impact on the lives of those she met seemed easy despite the size of the need. ‘I couldn’t believe how simple it was,’ Keys said, sounding a you-can-do-it-too note.

The efforts of much less well-known individuals were also shown. A California film producer related her story of going to Africa, as did a photographer who went to Africa to shoot school portraits for children. ‘I see inspiration,’ the photographer said in describing his experience.

Oprah concluded the show by facing the camera and thanking her viewers for their contributions. ‘It’s our human family that is suffering across the ocean,’ she said. The last word went to children, with film clips of South African schoolchildren saying, ‘Thank you.’

The South Africa shows exemplify Oprah at work informing and moving viewers about suffering. For her, suffering is not a general philosophical question; it is a particular condition being experienced by individuals, in this case children in South Africa who have been orphaned by AIDS. The remoteness and magnitude of the issue – South Africa has 12 million AIDS orphans – is scaled down and humanised into the faces and stories of individuals. Oprah’s shows selected a half-dozen educational and social-aid programs reaching a vast group of children. They showed a variety of solutions to the problem and people who have take action. Also included was an interview with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who provided a moral framework for this action. Hence, Oprah doesn’t need to preach because she’s got a preacher on hand.

From chapter 2 of The Gospel According to Oprah, published by WJKP 2005
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