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Danny Glover on Acting, Activism and His Honorary Oscar

On March 25, Danny Glover receives an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given for his decades of activism and service, which …

Danny Glover on Acting, Activism and His Honorary Oscar
24.03.2022 01:10

On March 25, 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.

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.

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.

Explore the 2022 Academy Awards

The 94th Academy Awards will be held on March 27 in Los Angeles.

  • Best Actress Race: Who will win? There are cases to be made for and against each contender, and no one has an obvious advantage.
  •  Hollywood Legend: Danny Glover will receive an honorary Oscar for his activism. He spoke to The Times about his life in movies and social justice.
  • A Makeover: On Oscar night, you can expect a refreshed, slimmer telecast and a few new awards. But are all of the tweaks a good thing?
  • Return to the Playground: For his Oscar-nominated short film “When We Were Bullies,” Jay Rosenblatt tracked down his fifth-grade classmates.
  • Secret Sounds: Denis Villeneuve and the “Dune” sound team explain how far they went to create an aural experience that felt familiar.

Has activism informed your choices of movies?

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.

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

I was working at night and going to the American Conservatory Theater. Bennet Guillory — we have a theater company in L.A. 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.

Could you talk about producing art films?

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.

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

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”?

Our Reviews of the 10 Best-Picture Oscar Nominees

Card 1 of 10

“Belfast.” In this charming memoir, the director Kenneth Branagh recalls, through a rose-tinted lens and black-and-white photography, his working-class childhood in a turbulent Northern Ireland.

“CODA.” A shy 17-year-old is the lone hearing member of her rambunctious family. As she confronts a newly awakened desire to sing, her efforts to share her musical talent with her deaf relatives are remarkably affecting.

“Don’t Look Up.” Two astronomers discover a comet headed straight for Earth. When they pass along the bad news, the president of the United States has other things on her mind to pay attention to than the impending catastrophe.

“Drive My Car.” A theater director grapples with the death of his wife, as he mounts a production of “Uncle Vanya.” A chauffeur assigned by the theater company ferries him to and from work while holding back vast emotional reserves of her own.

“Dune.” In this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction opus, the young scion of a noble family departs for a desert planet home to monstrous sandworms, enigmatic Bedouin-like inhabitants and an addictive, highly valuable resource called spice.

“King Richard.” This two-for-one superhero origin story follows young Venus and Serena Williams in their ascent in women’s tennis, as they fulfill an ambition that their father had conceived before the two were born.

“Licorice Pizza.” In Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age romance, a child performer who has hit maximum adolescent awkwardness is aging out of his professional niche. His encounter with 20-something Alana, whom he instantly falls for, gets the story’s juices going.

“Nightmare Alley.” A grifter with empty pockets and a mysterious past joins the sleazoid world of 1930s back-road carnivals. He soon begins cycling through women, including a clairvoyant whose husband once had a successful mentalist act.

“The Power of the Dog.” Phil Burbank has been playing cowboy his entire adult life, raising cattle on his family’s Montana ranch for decades. When his brother George marries a widow with a teenage son, a lifelong family dynamic is disrupted.

“West Side Story.” Steven Spielberg’s remake of one of Broadway’s most celebrated musicals — a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” — centers on the forbidden love between Tony and Maria, who are involved with two rival street gangs in Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950s.

Yes, indeed.

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.

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

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].

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.

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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