Oprah Winfrey is best known as the Emmy Award-winning host of her own daytime talk show. But she’s also a critically acclaimed actress who received a best supporting actress nomination for her film debut in 1985’s “The Color Purple.” Winfrey also starred in the highly rated ABC miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place.”
Her latest acting project is the ABC movie “There Are No Children There,” based on Alex Kotlowitz’s nonfiction bestseller. The film also is produced by Winfrey’s HARPO Productions.
Winfrey stars as LaJoe, the mother of five children, who lives in Chicago’s Harry Horner Homes project where drugs, gangs and shootings are a daily fact of life. Newcomer Mark Lane co-stars as Lafayette, her teen-age son who joins a gang; Norman Golden II (“Cop and a Half”) plays her youngest son, Pharoah.
Winfrey discussed “There Are No Children There,” which was shot on location at the Harry Horner project, over the phone from her Chicago home with Times Staff Writer Susan King.
Is it true that Diana Ross was going to play LaJoe?
I had approached Diana Ross about playing LaJoe because the network wanted a star. Diana Ross didn’t want to do it because she felt there wasn’t enough hope. Nothing was really resolved. That’s true. I interviewed her recently and I said, “You are absolutely right about the movie, nothing was resolved. The only hope is the hope that the children will do better.”
You know the projects are another world. Let’s be truthful about it. It’s like moving to another planet. I’m not kidding you. God, you see such lifelessness in the eyes of the people. But what it is, is hopelessness. The life has gone out of the eyes of a lot of the people and a lot of the children, too. They look like war-torn children.
Do most Chicago residents even know the Harry Horner project exists?
People pretend that it doesn’t. Do you know that it’s six blocks from downtown? I’m looking out my dining room window right now and I can see it. It’s hard to avoid it.
What you see in the film, we call it Project Disney because it’s Disneyland compared to what it’s really like. You can’t in the film really bring up the sights, the sounds, the smells and the sense of hopelessness.
I struggled with the role of LaJoe for the first couple of weeks and finally I had a meeting with (director) Anita Addison and I said, “I don’t know. I’m not getting this.” She said the problem is you are trying to play hopelessness. You can’t play it. Nobody wants to see it. The problem with me was I thought meeting with the real LaJoe would have been a great benefit. It actually threw me off. I was trying to do the real LaJoe’s life, which is far worse than anything in the script.
What’s going on with the real LaJoe and Lafayette and Pharoah?
LaJoe has moved out of the projects. She’s still living on the West Side, but it’s a better house. Pharaoh lives with Alex Kotlowitz for the most part. Alex is putting Pharoah through school. I don’t know about Lafayette. Anytime you ask about Lafayette, no one seems to know the answer. Even when I asked LaJoe, she said, “He’s doing.”
I think that we as a nation, and certainly we as a people, have to each one try to teach one. You can’t rely on government agencies or the “system” to save our children.
Since working in the projects this summer, I agreed to have all the kids who used to come to my trailer at night to meet me every Tuesday and we’d go over their homework assignments. Out of the six kids who promised, only one has kept it up. He’s an endearing little boy named Calvin. Several weeks ago he didn’t show up. The horror of it is when the child didn’t show up, I didn’t think he had missed the bus or he was late. I wondered if he had been killed. Do you know what? He comes to me and says, “I was almost shot yesterday.” He was in the playground playing and some gang of boys, they just opened fire. Here’s a little boy who is 13 who doesn’t believe he’ll live to be 20.
Was shooting at the projects dangerous? Do you have to make peace with the gangs?
We made peace with the gangs. The gangs control the area. So we had a meeting with the gangs, a meeting with the people who run the projects. They all wanted us to be there.
Did you hire residents as extras?
It was fun for them. The fact they were getting positive attention was very helpful.
I’m taking my salary from the movie and I’m starting a scholarship program. What happened is that ABC matched the funds, so I have $1 million to put back into the projects. You know what the problem is? Not enough kids graduate from high school to have a scholarship fund.
In that particular project last year, three kids graduated from high school. Now, we have to start from the bottom, start a program which teaches kids to read so they can graduate so they can get a scholarship. I thought we will start a scholarship program so kids don’t have to worry about college. That doesn’t even work there because kids don’t understand the importance of going to college. The kids who were meeting me every Tuesday, they can’t bring books home. They are not allowed to take books out of the school because there were not enough books to go around, so you can’t do homework. I was amazed. You can’t take books out of the library. I never heard of such a thing. What have we done? What have we done?
“There Are No Children Here” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC; “The Oprah Winfrey Show” airs weekdays at 3 p.m. on KABC.