Six years ago I interviewed actor Danny Glover in advance of a speaking engagement he made in Omaha to help usher in the city’s Holland Performing Arts Center. Glover is one of those weighty figures who brings a certain gravitas to his work, no matter the genre or the role, and in some cursory reading about him before the interview I discovered, not surprisingly, that he’s involved in many social and humanitarian causes. This short story gives some insights into the foundation for some of his activist beliefs and actions. I was also interested in how he has fashioned a career in which he’s used his more mainstream commercial work to help leverage his riskier art or political work in film and on stage and how he’s become quite active behind the camera as a producer and director. The following story refers to a Charles Burnett film he was to star in, Nujoma: Where Others Wavered, whose title became Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation. The story also refers to a couple projects he was planning to make with his production company, Toussaint Louverture. But neither Toussaint nor God’s Bits of Wood has been realized yet, which is not unusual given the development hell that is common in filmmaking. There can be a price to pay for being as outspoken as Glover is and one wonders if the reason he’s not seen in big studio films anymore is because of his political activity or because his interests lead him to smaller independent projects that are more aligned with his passions. It’s also interesting to speculate if being black and politically controversial carries a heavier price tag than for, say, someone like Sean Penn or Tim Robbins or Martin Sheen, who are also known for their vocal and visible social actions and yet seem unaffected career-wise by their stances.
Activist Actor Danny Glover Takes Creative Control
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Glover spoke to The Reader in advance of his emcee duties for the Holland Performing Arts Center’s Friday grand opening, where he’s replacing actor Richard Dreyfuss. A marketable name and impassioned artist, Glover’s eschewed the popcorn antics of the Lethal Weapon action pics that made him a star in the 1980s and 1990s to focus on more serious, personal projects.
Earlier this year he announced the formation of his new production company, Louverture Films, a name inspired by Toussaint Louverture, the slave-turned-leader of a Haitian revolution (1789-1804) that won independence from French colonial rule. Aptly, the company’s first of six planned independently financed feature and documentary projects is the dramatic historical epic Toussaint, with Don Cheadle starring as the charismatic title character and Angela Bassett as his wife. Glover is directing the film, which begins shooting in April in Mozambique and South Africa. Glover’s co-founder in the company is screenwriter Joslyn Barnes, co-scenarist of Battu, a 2000 film by Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko that Glover cameoed in.
Louverture’s stated mission of developing movies of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity is an outgrowth of Glover’s long held commitment to doing relevant work. A self-described “child of the civil rights movement,” his humanist sensibilities came of age in the rich counter-culture stew of San Francisco, a fertile ground for the Black Power, anti-war and gay rights movements. His postal employee parents were involved in union and NAACP struggles to achieve workers’ rights and racial equality.
”I was very much shaped by that,” he said. “Both the idealism and the reality. That’s an important part of my life. That’s the foundation. My parents came out of organizing the union they were in. They were politicized as well. So, there’s a whole kind of legacy that goes along with my own involvement. It happened long before I became someone that people recognize on the screen or on the street.”
At San Francisco State College he fed off the fervor of the times through campus and community activist groups. He assisted inner-city children and ran reading centers. It was at college he met his future wife Asake Bormani and got his first taste of working in the theater. After college he worked six years in San Francisco’s office of community development, where his grassroots advocacy is still remembered by residents today.
But it wasn’t until 1975, at age 28, he devoted himself to acting. His experience in the Black Actors Workshop at the American Conservatory Theater and his work with area stage companies allowed him to explore his social concerns in a new way.
”Theater became a different, more expressive form of saying things and trying to re-envision the world and my relationship to the world,” he said. “For me, it was a real important moment defining how much I wanted to be an artist. It was a vibrant theater community here in San Francisco and without that vibrancy and dynamic I don’t think I would have grown in the way in which I’ve grown as an artist.”
Glover first came to national prominence via his association with Athol Fugard, the South African playwright whose acclaimed works reveal the evils of apartheid. The actor appeared in a revival of Fugard’s Blood Knot off-Broadway and was chosen by Fugard to play the lead in Master Harold and the Boys on Broadway, a part that brought Glover to the attention of Hollywood. He went on to act in and/or produce many films dealing with the African-American and African experiences, including The Color Purple, Mandela, A Raisin in the Sun, To Sleep with Anger, Grand Canyon, Bopha!, Freedom Song, Buffalo Soldiers, Boesman & Lena and Battu.
He said any great work has something to say about the human condition.
”If you’re going be doing the work of Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Bertold Brecht…you’re going to be doing socially conscious work.”
Sensing fewer American films are drawn from the best sources, he reads widely in a never-ending search for top material. He casts his eye all over the world for stories so that he doesn’t limit himself or his vision.
”I think we all try to see ourselves beyond the work that we’re often hired to do,” he said. “You come into this business with some sort of idea of what you want to do and how you want to shape your career. You see films and you say, I want to do those kinds of films. You read stories and you say, I want to tell those kinds of stories. You watch. You read.
”I see films from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia, India, Europe. Ther’∂s a whole feast of films and ideas around the world. They offer other ways for you to see yourself in the world. This is what informs and fulfills me. I try to see myself as the company sees itself — as part of world cinema. We want to become a part of that. We want to expand the kind of limited space we often occupy when we look at ourselves as solely having a relationship with U.S. cinema.”
Glover, who’s made many films in Africa, where he’s a much revered and popular figure, raised his awareness of that contintent’s issues in the ‘70s, when he first went there. He worked on the African Liberation Support Committee. Later, he was swept up in the anti-apartheid effort. He’s said, “It’s clear the destinies of the people of Africa and those of African descent are incredibly connected. This is what I take as my starting point in my life and, I hope, in my work.”
He chairs the board of the Trans-Africa Forum and is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. His public service has won him many honors, including the 2002 Marian Anderson Award and the 2003 NAACP Chairman∂s Award.
His inclusive Louverture venture is devoted to ”the employment and training of cast and crew from the African Diaspora, minorities and/or marginalized communities. That’s a critical part of what we’re doing. We want to establish a way of doing things differently and changing the demographics about who makes films and whose stories are being told and exposing people” whose lives and abilities have been hidden.
After Toussaint, Louverture’s next major project is God’s Bits of Wood, a novel about a 1947 railway strike on the Dakar-Niger line that sparked West Africa’s move towards independence. The film will be written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, whom Glover calls “the father of African film,” from Sembene ’s own novel. ”It∂s a really powerful moment in a people’s evolution and how they come to have a different realization of themselves and their power,” Glover said.
Among Glover’s latest acting gigs is Nujoma: Where Others Wavered, a new film by Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger) based on the autobiography of Sam Nujoma, the first president of Namibia and former head of the South West African People’s Organization. Carl Lumbly (Alias) plays the title role and Glover plays a government minister. He’s also completed Manderlay, the second in Lars von Trier’s American trilogy, and Missing in America, a story about an isolated Vietnam vet. The former should be released later this year, while the latter still awaits a distributor.
Meanwhile, Glover speaks out when he sees a need to. On the early failed response to Hurricane Katrina, he said while it’s “elementary to give and to give generously in the aftermath of a catastrophe, the question is, How much do we really understand the underlying systemic and structural problems we’re dealing with?” He said the outpouring of giving and second-guessing “disguises the real problems and don’t allow us to deal with them.”
- Glover acts for social action, too (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Danny Glover Wants ‘Black Power Mixtape’ To Encourage Transformation (huffingtonpost.com)
- Danny Glover Appears At Occupy LA: ‘We Need 24/7 Warriors’ (huffingtonpost.com)