Lynn Whitfield: One-time Obama surrogate on politics, race, #MeToo

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Actress Lynn Whitfield at the Kimpton Hotel Allegro. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Memories of sitting on history’s brink — in that tent, on that night in Grant Park, watching election returns roll in — flood over actress Lynn Whitfield whenever she visits Chicago.

Whitfield was among the Hollywood personalities selected as surrogates by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She crisscrossed the country to get out the African-American vote, and on Nov. 4, 2008, she and other surrogates gathered and held their breath.

Across from her was Omarosa Manigault-Newman. Yes, the recently resigned — or fired — director of communications for President Donald Trump’s White House Office of Public Liaison. In 2008, Manigault-Newman was a staunch Democrat and also a campaign surrogate for Obama, then the junior U.S. senator from Illinois.

“It was just so great being in that tent. I’ll never forget that moment” Obama was declared the winner, Whitfield said. “It took the breath right out of my body.”

The 64-year-old actress stars in the Oprah Winfrey Network series “Greenleaf,” alongside the media mogul herself. She was in town recently for the Cafe Mocha Salute Her Awards, which honored the achievements of eight local women as well as Whitfield, the headliner.

“I was blessed and fortunate to be chosen as a surrogate, because a lot of people wanted to be,” she says. “We were everywhere — in barber shops, beauty shops, churches in our communities. We were all just so deeply ‘in!’ ”

That night, she said, Omarosa had told her: “’Lynn, girl, people don’t know how hard you worked, but I was out there. Everywhere I went, they said, ‘Lynn Whitfield just left.'”

As for Manigault-Newman’s own journey since then, she added, “yeah, it’s ironic.”

Manigault-Newman gained fame in 2004, on the first season of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” starring Trump. During the 2016 presidential election, she joined the Trump campaign. She joined his staff in January, declaring she’s now a Republican.

Whitfield stayed with the Obama campaign and was a surrogate again in 2012. In Ohio, on election eve, the campaign flew her to Chicago to join actresses Alfre Woodard and Angela Bassett to make last-minute phone calls.

Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield star in “Greenleaf” on Winfrey’s television network. | Provided

Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield star in “Greenleaf” on Winfrey’s television network. | Provided

The Baton Rouge native, who describes herself as a “political being,” believes Trump’s presidency feeds racial strife, with the country facing a “resurgence of racism and white supremacy and tribalism.”

“The election of Obama undermined so deeply the white power structure of our country that was so terrified of losing power that any alternative was better than women gaining ground, than black people or Latinos gaining ground,” Whitfield said.

“At the end of the day, there’s so much inequality in the system. … It’s why I always go out and work to help people understand the power of their vote,” she added.

“Who’s speaking for us … is important. But for African-Americans, where we are spiritually is important too. There’s a pressure-cooker of frustration that we had so many gains and now we have so many losses. But we can’t allow our hearts to be hardened by any of it.”

Whitfield lives in Atlanta, where Winfrey films Greenleaf. In 35-plus years in Hollywood, she said, she’s never been a victim of the behavior spotlighted by the sexual assault allegations that derailed producer Harvey Weinstein’s career.

“I would say I’ve had possibilities of #MeToo’s in my career,” she says of the movement, which has since toppled dozens of powerful men in entertainment, media and politics. “But there’s some kind of discernment I often have been blessed with, to move myself out of the way, to not be alone with certain people.”

Chicago is also special to Whitfield because she filmed her first movie here, 1983’s “Dr. Detroit.”

“I got to dance with James Brown,” she says gleefully. “It was just so memorable, because I was so green around the edges and so excited.”

Since then, the theatre, TV and film star has notched dozens of films. “Greenleaf” is the second time she’s worked alongside Oprah, the first being the 1989 TV movie “The Women of Brewster Place.”

Surveying the chaotic political and social landscape, Whitfield remains optimistic.

“This is a huge spiritual dilemma for our country that it has gotten to this level of vitriol and slime and scum and sludge,” she says.

“But maybe it’s like a pimple that comes to a head, because little by little, people are rebelling,” Whitfield added. “It’s what happened … with the Women’s March. As vulgar as it was, that remark Trump made on the bus was impetus for all these women coming together. I have to believe better days are coming.”

Sponsored by AARP, Toyota and ORS Hair Care, the Salute Her Awards also honored Chicago trailblazers Michelle Flowers-Welch, Dorothy Leavell, Jennifer Maddox, Geraldine Smith, Alissa Constable, Patricia Edwards and Kelly Fair.

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