January 10, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 22
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Film icon Glover uses big screen to tackle big issues

Kam Williams

Born on July 22, 1946, Danny Lebern Glover was the eldest of five children raised in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco by postal workers James and Carrie Glover. After graduating from George Washington High School, he attended San Francisco State University, where he forged his progressive political perspective as a member of the Black Student Union.

In his late twenties, Glover developed an interest in acting and started studying at the Black Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco. His screen debut came in 1979’s “Escape from Alcatraz,” though his breakout role would come five years later, acting as Moze opposite Sally Field in 1984’s “Places in the Heart.”

The following year, Glover gave his notorious turn as Albert in Steven Spielberg’s screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple.” But most mainstream viewers likely remember Glover as Sgt. Roger Murtaugh, the role he played alongside Mel Gibson in the four box office mega-hits in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise.

Glover enjoys perhaps his best role in years in his latest film, “Honeydripper,” a historical drama set in the Jim Crow South that teams him with iconoclastic director John Sayles and talented ensemble cast, including Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Vondie Curtis-Hall.

The acclaimed actor and activist recently took a few moments to speak with the Banner about “Honeydripper,” happiness and his ongoing commitment to the disenfranchised.

What interested you in the script of “Honeydripper”?

Oh, man, it always starts with the story. This story was just so compelling, plus the period was fascinating, and I liked the way in which John Sayles, the director, was able to integrate the music with all the changes that were happening during that period.

There’s not only the musical dynamics of it, and using music as a metaphor in some way to talk about change, the piano being superseded by the electric guitar and rock music, etc., but also the way in which John has layered the story, and layered the characters. They have their own histories, which reflect a much broader history of the changes which were about to occur.

The film recaptures a slice of African Americana from a period when black people’s existence was denied by mainstream culture — as a child of the 1950s, I remember how people would yell for everybody to come when you just saw any black face on television.

Absolutely! And the images on TV then were stereotypes and buffoons, and the images of Africa were of Tarzan. So, I just think that there’s a way in which this film, in some sense, takes another step in terms of presenting people in real time, in real life. And as we reflect upon that, we see the embodiment of not only the musical dynamic and changes that occurred within that period of time, but also we see the emergence of the social changes and the political changes that were happening as well.

I spoke to John Sayles the other day — I find it interesting that this is his third film with an African American ensemble, along with “The Brother from Another Planet” and “Sunshine State.”

What I think is so wonderful about John is his historical relevance and reverence. You see, John really feels that, yeah, individuals may mark a moment, but things really happen with the collective movement of people. So he’s able to identify in his movies this unique transition from the individual, as an individual lives his life, to what his life manifests in terms of the collective movement among a people as well. That’s unique, because he achieves this without being didactic, expository or rhetorical.

Tell me a little about your character in “Honeydripper,” Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis.

He’s an independent black businessman trying to save his business. First of all, this was a rarity in the South that we know in 1950. That’s one aspect.

Hey, countless young African American men were trained in the Navy or the Army about radio. Here’s a guy who takes that technology and uses it as part of his artistic expression. How many men is he representative of? John gives him a back-story, one that is consistent with the historical evolution.

And then my daughter (Yaya DaCosta), who decides that she has aspirations outside of the constraints and limitations that are placed upon young black girls in the South. She wants to go to beauty school, she wants to travel, she wants to see this, she wants to see that. These are little revelations, which are manifestations not only of an individual’s identity and personality, but are also reflective of a collective movement of people.

One of your recent movies, “Manderlay,” had a fascinating premise — it was set in the 1930s on a plantation in Alabama where slavery never ended, and despite having a small budget, I found the film fascinating and extremely well done.

Well, let’s say that, in substance, “Manderlay” is a movie is about democracy. Then we have to ask, “What is democracy? What does it mean? What are its elements? How do you digest it in real terms? In real terms?” My character asks, “What does this mean to me?”

All you have to do is read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” to get a picture that he paints through 12 parables about situations directly after the Emancipation Proclamation and after the end of Reconstruction in the South. There’s an interesting dynamic when we look at it, because there were places in the South in the 1930s that were almost unchanged since the end of slavery.

So my character talks about the idea of safety and the idea of democracy. What were we all to do? We didn’t know. Here you had an institution that subjugated and determined a people’s sense of themselves for 250 years, and all of a sudden they’re set free. What does that mean?

That’s the main issue we never deal with in this country. We’re never capable of dealing with the psychosis, the neurosis and all the pathology around that. Everybody’s afraid to talk about slavery. We never speak about it freely. Nobody wants to talk about it, neither the victims nor the perpetrators. That’s why we’re so incapable of dealing with this whole issue around race.

That’s why I appreciated “Honeydripper.” It tackles some sensitive social issues in a serious fashion, like how innocent black men used to be sentenced to chain gangs in the South to be exploited for free labor. Many movies make light of it, treating blacks’ second-class status as a fait accompli and something to joke about. That’s supporting the status quo, not challenging it.

Exactly. Supporting it, rather than questioning it and bringing to the world’s attention the real impact on us of various transgressions. These feelings and these emotions are repeated, because history is not merely individual stories, but it’s a collective story as well.

I’m very eager to see the biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture you’re going to direct, starring Don Cheadle, Mos Def and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

We’re trying to put it together and get it done, baby. It’s an important part not only of our history, of people from the African world, but of everyone’s history. It’s something that we hope will punch some holes in the empire narrative.

There are almost no other black actors who have reached the prominence that you have who have remained vocally and actively committed to progressive political causes. Where do you find the strength to persevere?

Well, the way in which artists’ careers suffered 55 years ago because of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s draconian measures and very fascistic process of attacking creativity and their imaginations.

Back then, unions were larger and more powerful. Social movements and ideological struggles were much more prominent, and a part of the social discourse. It doesn’t happen in the same form now, but today there are other subtle ways in which they attack the credibility of artists like Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

Are you ever concerned about the toll that your activism might take on your career?

No. I tell people, “You can’t tell me who I can talk to. You can’t tell me what I can talk about. You can’t pick my friends. And in a democracy, you can’t tell me that I can’t talk about real issues.” They attacked us for being against the war, even though everybody’s against the war now. Today, a cat who’s in favor of the war is an anomaly.

My critics have taken to attacking my relationships, but they have nothing to say about the substance of what I’ve had to say about the state of education, or about what’s happening with working people and in New Orleans. They don’t want to talk about that.

Many condemn you for your relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Look here. Here’s a man who has African blood in him with whom I share things in common, such as how we feel about poor people. How come I can’t talk to him? How come he can’t be my friend? How come he can’t be my brother? Because you say he can’t? Because you don’t like him?

One last question: Are you happy?

Yeah, I’m happy. I’m a grandfather, and I’m in love with him. He’s almost four and he’s my running partner. I’m trying to insert myself in his life every way I can. And he knows it.

In his latest film, “Honeydripper,” Hollywood legend Danny Glover plays Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis, a struggling juke joint owner and piano player trying to keep his business afloat in rural 1950s Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Emerging Pictures)

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