The John Zuccotti Theater at the Borough of Manhattan Community College has a cathedral-like quality to it, thanks to expansive audience seating and the brightly-colored panels on the ceiling. And this made it the perfect place for the Tribeca premiere of OWN’s “Greenleaf,” giving the screening a vibe on par with the megachurch universe depicted in the pilot episode.
The show covers the inner drama of a family that runs a Tennessee megachurch. Grace (Merle Dandridge), once a devout Christian but now questioning her faith, comes home for her sister’s funeral. There, she finds out that there’s more going on in the opulent Greenleaf mansion than she knew, including corruption, infidelity and potentially even greater scandals.
“Greenleaf” takes on issues regarding faith and religion in a way that is often absent from mainstream entertainment, and features a solid cast. But there’s no denying that the reason the theater was packed — and why festival co-founder Robert De Niro introduced the screening, remarking on the grace with which talent now moves between film and television projects — was Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey, who executive produced “Greenleaf” and also plays a minor role, was in attendance, and she’s an icon. But she was able to make her way by refusing to be anything but genuine, honest and direct. Some wisdom from Winfrey, revealed during the post-screening Q&A moderated by Elvis Mitchell:
“I believe that what we all love is a good story, whether it’s your friend telling you or your mother telling you — we all love a good story. I learned this years ago on ‘The Oprah Show.’ In order to truly move people, you have to connect to their heart and to their emotions.
“So my real role on earth is to lift consciousness[es]. All of my work is all about the same thing. It’s about showing people new ways of seeing themselves and seeing the problems and flaws and dysfunctions that we all have and shining a little light on that, being able to lift that up — just enough that you can see yourself in that. So the idea of bringing light — the light of ideas, the light of consciousness — to the work is what I’m always striving for, no matter what I’m doing.”
By the way, it’s good to be Oprah — Winfrey likely picked the role of Mavis for herself because the estranged member of the Greenleaf clan, who owns a local roadhouse outside of the family sphere, is easily the most fun of the bunch. It’s a supporting part, but she’s a delightful presence.
On balance, “Greenleaf” is a bit rough. Production-wise, director Clement Virgo’s approach doesn’t push beyond relatively basic staging; there’s a dinner table scene at the core of the pilot that basically serves as the heart of the episode, setting up so much family drama to be explored. But the choice of set-ups makes the execution feel static and forced.
And creator Craig Wright’s script does feature the occasional bit of poetry masquerading as dialogue — “Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in my fields of my peace” being one notable moment. But for the most part it keeps things plain while delving into the complexities of this particular family dynamic. It’s a universe that elicits comparisons to Tennessee Williams (bringing up “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” during their initial meeting, in fact, got Virgo the directing job), and while it lacks the subtlety of Williams’s work, there’s plenty of meat on these bones, and could build in intrigue down the line.
Keith David, as patriarch and pastor James Greenleaf, may be the major reason to tune in, his leonine presence making him a captivating figure, whether he’s enjoying a family dinner or preaching to the not-so-converted. Two important facts about David: During the Q&A, he admitted that he actually wanted to be a preacher at one point, and he also collects lions (statues of them, presumably). Neither fact is all that much a surprise.
“Greenleaf,” while flawed, has a lot of promise as a show aimed at a specific demographic — the demographic for which Winfrey created OWN, a network that since its launch in 2011, she told Mitchell, has always been described as “struggling.”
But that makes the existence of “Greenleaf” all the more powerful for Winfrey, who credits the basic fact that she was able to do this series — “a dream come true for me” — to Tyler Perry. “When our team got together and had the dream of being able to do this kind of scripted television, that was really founded because Tyler Perry, my friend, called me and said ‘I can write a series for you and I can direct it and I can do it cheaper than anything and I can help you start the idea of doing scripted,'” she said. “And so it is because of the foundation that Tyler laid for us at OWN that we’re able to move into ‘Greenleaf.'”
Not just “Greenleaf,” by the way, but also the next high-profile OWN original coming soon, “Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar,” which Winfrey said will debut this fall.
“What this has taught me is that dreams as big as I have dreamed and as big as the dream that God has held for me — things get even bigger and better,” Winfrey said. “Every day on set our team would say ‘I can’t believe this is happening! I can’t believe we’re doing this!'”
But by the power of Oprah — dreams do come true.
“Greenleaf” premieres June 21 on OWN. More Tribeca video…