Has any American spent more of her career flinging her arms up in shock and elation than Oprah Winfrey? Maybe — maybe — certain long-suffering and spoiled-rotten sports fans. But in 25 years of hosting a daytime talk show five days a week, nine months out 12, often to gigantic ratings, Ms. Winfrey raised her arms a lot — over makeovers and giveaways and celebrity surprises, like that time, in 2011, nearing the final broadcast of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” when she turned around and saw Stevie Wonder, at a piano, rising out of an arena floor. O.K., it was only one arm, but it went up with the force of two. Her reaction was part “buzzer beater,” part “pageant win.”
She and her thousands of hours of TV are now the subjects of a big, fascinating exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that captures what the show was, did and has meant. And it includes that Stevie Wonder moment, in a short montage focused on the show’s leap, in its final years, into lavish, thrill-a-minute mega-production.
The installation — “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” — is what can only be called so Smithsonian: a mouthwatering, heartwarming, eye-opening, foot-aching conflation of biography, anthropology, sociology, nostalgia, history and insight (about culture, race, gender, technology, media, education, consumerism, economics, beauty, fashion and the law) into a potent dioramic spectacle. You leave it with a fuller understanding of Ms. Winfrey’s rare determination to matter to everybody and in awe of how acutely she still does.
That bit with Mr. Wonder lasts about 15 seconds in the montage. But it sticks with you. For one thing, it exposes something endearingly normal in a woman, who as a very famous TV host, could presumably have had Mr. Wonder pop out of any floor anytime she wanted. For another, the women in the audience (thousands of them, black and white; I didn’t spot a single man) leap and shout and wail, with their arms in the air, in a dozen different ways, from “Lotto win” to “praise Jesus.” They’re going nuts for Mr. Wonder, obviously. But they might be more ecstatic about the joy he’s bringing Ms. Winfrey. This isn’t a cult, exactly. It’s a living, screaming symbiotic social network. Affirmation and intent became muscular cornerstones of the “Oprah Winfrey” enterprise. When she banged the “like” button, her vast constituency banged on it, too.
The show’s been off the air for seven years, and we miss it: More than a year before “Watching Oprah,” Chicago’s WBEZ released the podcast “Making Oprah,” a delicious behind-the-scenes casserole that Jenn White served with a fan’s appreciation and a critic’s forensic eye. And Ms. Winfrey hasn’t disappeared at all. Since “Oprah” went off the air, Winfrey has evolved into an even more instinctive screen actress, for one thing. She’s written books; she’s vividly alive on Instagram, her cable network and wellness podcast; and she looked supremely tickled to be at Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding last month.
And yet, if America can’t actually miss Oprah Winfrey, it might miss an idea of her. As “Oprah Winfrey Show” Oprah, a totem of humanity, respect, largess and fun. As a figure of immense, almost assaultive generosity, who could unleash, in us, bombastic yet utterly sincere gratitude.