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Danny Glover on acting, activism and his honorary Oscar


Danny Glover at the Town Hall in New York, on March 1, 2022. The actor and producer is receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars this year.

By Nicolas Rapold


On Friday, Danny Glover receives an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given for his decades of activism and service, which includes stints as a Goodwill Ambassador both for UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program. Glover ascended to fame in the 1980s with his roles in “The Color Purple” and the “Lethal Weapon” series. But he has also built an extensive career producing critically lauded and inventive art films, including “Bamako,” “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” “Zama” and, further back, “To Sleep With Anger.”


Glover, 75, modestly prefers to talk about history and heroes like Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height (or tell a story about when Nelson Mandela, whom he played in an HBO movie, sang “Happy Birthday” to his dad). In the words of one of his producing partners at Louverture Films, Joslyn Barnes, “he understands himself as a cultural worker.” His next projects could plausibly include both consulting with the directors Apichatpong Weerasethakul and RaMell Ross, and prepping a “Lethal Weapon” sequel.


He spoke by phone from San Francisco, where he’s lived in the Haight-Ashbury since age 11. This interview has been condensed and edited.


Q: You were engaged in activism before acting. In 1968 you took part in a five-month strike at San Francisco State University as part of the Black Students Union.


A: We formed this amazing coalition with Asian students, Latinx students and also progressive white students. I’m unequivocally a child of the Civil Rights Movement. I witnessed my parents come of age and become involved in the postal union. I can remember watching the Montgomery bus boycott when I was 9 years old. Most of my extended vacations were to see my grandparents in rural Georgia, Jefferson County, where my mother was from, and I could associate where they lived with the campaigns.


Q: Has activism informed your choices of movies?


A: I’m an actor first because of my activism. Look, I’d never been onstage before [as a student]. It was totally through the fact that theater became a tool in which to communicate in the Black Arts Movement. There had been movements of Black artists before then, certainly, with generations before then in the 20th century, the ascension of Black artists during that period of time, in which Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and so many more, became a part of the cultural landscape in our country. But this particular moment gave voice to a certain kind of theater. And I became involved in the African Liberation Support Committee and the anti-apartheid movement.


Q: Was there a play that was transformative for you as an actor in the 1970s?


A: I was working at night and going to the American Conservatory Theater. Bennet Guillory — we have a theater company in LA called the Robey Theatre — said, “Let’s work on something.” It was “Blood Knot” by Athol Fugard. It’s a fascinating piece around two characters, one is white and one is Black, who are brothers. That was the moment where my life changed. I’d been working in the office of community development in the Mayor’s Office and the Model Cities Program since 1971. Now I was able to connect the movements that I had been involved with, essentially the movements around African Liberation, with art.


Q: Could you talk about producing art films?


A: What was fascinating to me about African films was that these were postcolonial films and relations from another vantage point than the images that we saw of Africans throughout the history of cinema, particularly American cinema. Insightful films, particularly from Senegal and Mali, like Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl.” So we could watch Africans tell their story and see how they become the architects of, and envision, their own growth and development.


And I got an opportunity to do that. I’d been wanting to do a movie about the Haitian Revolution. When we think about Haiti, we think about this impoverished place, this place where there’s always turmoil, but it had a revolution led by one of the most remarkable leaders in Toussaint L’Ouverture. I found a place of understanding the world through that revolution. And I met this incredible human being named Joslyn Barnes when I was doing a cameo on a movie of a friend of mine in Senegal.


Q: What’s it been like to produce work by filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul?


A: He’s incredible! I mean, to be around him, spend time around him. All these filmmakers! Abderrahmane Sissako, we did “Bamako,” about the World Bank. That was in his family’s courtyard. We filmed people who were actually living in the courtyard and going to work. You know “Uncle Boonmee”?


Q: Yes, indeed.


A: Oh man, what a great movie! I could’ve asked my grandmother and grandfather to watch that movie and they would have found something in there. It’s amazing filmmaking.


Q: You were producing earlier, too, with “To Sleep With Anger” in 1990, and “The Saint of Fort Washington” in 1993, both of which you starred in.


A: I knew Charles Burnett [the director of “To Sleep with Anger”] through his work, as early as “Killer of Sheep.” It’s so rich in the journey, how you accumulate all these things, repositories from not only our own lives, but past lives as well. My grandfather carried a toby [a good-luck charm that Glover’s trickster character looks for].


Q: It’s also been great to see you in new independent films by first-time directors, like “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” from Joe Talbot, and “Sorry to Bother You,” from Boots Riley.


A: Walter Riley and I were in San Francisco State together, back in 1968, ’69. That’s his father, man! I thought it was beautiful. San Francisco has such a small Black community, and that’s beautiful about living in the same neighborhood, seeing people that you remember. You’re at the store, and somebody says, “You know, my grandma knows you.” This is why this stuff makes me laugh. Because if you’d have known me at 12, 13, 14, 15 years old … “Him? That guy right there? He’s the one in ‘Lethal Weapon’?”

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