Monday, December 31, 2007

Danny Glover: The Honeydripper Interview

Interview with Kam Williams

Headline: Danny on Acting, Directing, and His Commitment to the Downtrodden and Disenfranchised

Born on July 22, 1946, Danny Lebern Glover was the eldest of five children raised in San Francisco by James and Carrie Glover, both of whom were postal workers. After graduating from George Washington High School, he attended San Francisco State University where his progressive political perspective was forged as a member of the Black Student Union.
He developed an interest in acting in his late twenties, which is when he started studying at the Black Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco. Danny’s screen debut came in Escape from Alcatraz in 1979, though he found his breakout role as Moze opposite Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance in Places in the Heart.
His most notorious outing arrived in 1985 as Albert in Steven Spielberg’s screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. However, he is likely to be best remembered for the four buddy flicks he made with Mel Gibson during the run of the Lethal Weapon franchise. Plus, he has handled title roles as Nelson Mandela in Mandela, as Boesman in Boesman and Lena, and appeared in everything from Witness to Predator 2 to The Rainmaker to Beloved to The Royal Tenebaums to Manderlay to Shooter to Dreamgirls.
Danny enjoys his best role in years in his latest film, Honeydripper, a historical drama set in the Jim Crow South. The movie has him re-teamed with iconoclastic director John Sayles and complemented in this endeavor by a very talented ensemble cast which included Charles S. Dutton, Mary Steenburgen, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Stacy Keach, Keb’ Mo’, Sean Patrick Thomas and Yaya DaCosta.
Here, Mr. Glover talks not only about Honeydripper but about his ongoing commitment to the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.

DG: Hey, Kam, how’re you doing?
KW: Okay, and you?
DG: Good! Good!
KW: Thanks so much for the time. I really appreciate it.
DG: Oh, you’re welcome.
KW: So, what interested you in the script of Honeydripper?
DG: 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. So, 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 etcetera, 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.
KW: What I appreciate about this film is how it recaptures a slice of African-Americana from a period during which black people’s existence was denied by the mainstream culture. As a child of the Fifties, I remember how people would yell for everybody to come when you just saw any black face on television.
DG: Absolutely! And the images then on TV 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.
KW: The musical aspects of Honeydripper resonated with me because I grew up in a black community with a lot of jazz greats: Count Basie, Ella, Lena Horne, Lester Young, Fats Waller, Oliver Nelson, Billie Holiday and others, during a time when their music was being eclipsed in popularity by newcomers to the neighborhood like James Brown. It was an interesting dynamic to observe.
DG: Where’d you grow up?
KW: In St. Albans, New York in the late Fifties.
DG: Then you saw it happen during a different period but, yeah, you hit on the way all forms of music indigenous to black people have resonated, whether it’s blues, or jazz, or gospel music, how that forms a foundation and resonates in our lives. My dad was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1919, at this moment in time when all this stuff was happening around music. And his life reflected that movement of music. So, music becomes something of a barometer for looking at the world and for looking at our situation through the music itself.
KW: I spoke to John Sayles the other day, and find it interesting that this is his third film with an African-American ensemble, along with Brother from Another Planet and Sunshine State.
DG: 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.
KW: So, tell me a little about your character in Honeydripper, Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis.
DG: 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, and one that is consistent with the historical evolution. And then my daughter [played by 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.
KW: One of your movies, Manderlay, was #1 on my Ten Best Independent Films List for 2006. That picture, directed by Lars von Trier, had a fascinating premise and was set in the 1930s on a plantation in Alabama where slavery never ended. Despite the micro-budget, I found the film fascinating and extremely well done.
DG: 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 twelve 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 Thirties 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.
KW: 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. Ordinarily, movies make light of it, such as that comedy Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. There, they treated blacks’ second-class status as a fait accompli and as something to joke about. That’s supporting the status quo, not challenging it.
DG: 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.
KW: Well, I’m very eager to see the biography of Toussaint L’Overture you’re going to direct, starring Don Cheadle, Mos Def and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
DG: 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.
KW: There are almost no other black actors who have reached the prominence that you have who have remained very vocally and actively committed to progressive political causes. Where do you find the strength to persevere?
DG: 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.
KW: When you mention the House Un-American Activities Committee, it makes me think of Paul Robeson who was from Princeton, which is where I live. He was blacklisted back then.
DG: We owe so much to Paul. He is definitely one of my heroes. Right at the top with Harry [Belafonte].
KW: Are you ever concerned about the toll that your activism might take on your career?
DG: 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.
KW: Yeah, they’ve been condemning you for your relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
DG: 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?
KW: Let me ask you just a couple more questions. The Columbus Short question. Are you happy?
DG: 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.
KW: And the Jimmy Bayan question. Where in L.A. do you live?
DG: I live in San Francisco in the Haight-Asbury district. I grew up in the Haight-Asbury.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Danny. Keep giving them hell and the best of luck with this film.
DG: Thank you, baby. Bye now.

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