Danny Glover Interviewed by Stuart Jeffries of the UK Guardian
A few years ago, Danny Glover sat in his car and cried. The Hollywood star and political activist had just heard the news that his friend, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, had been toppled in a coup backed by the US and France. “It was 28 February 2004 and I sat in that parking lot crying uncontrollably, knowing that we’d have to start building again.”
Glover fixes me with tired eyes as we sit in an upstairs room of the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London’s Kentish Town on a rainy Saturday afternoon. He has just flown in from the US and the same evening will give a speech at the centre during a fundraiser for the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.
In the years since Aristide was ousted, Haiti has suffered floods, mud-slides, hurricanes, an earthquake in 2010 that killed tens of thousands, followed by a cholera outbreak that killed nearly 6,000. Infrastructure has collapsed, gang violence remains rife and the UN has described the human rights situation as “catastrophic”.
“When I talk about Haiti, it breaks my heart,” says Glover. “Yet when I think about the Haitian people’s resilience, it heals my heart at the same time.”
This is Glover’s great theme and his deepest conviction: that there is something special and indomitable about the Haitian people. “You’ve got to know your history,” says Glover. “The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the Haitian revolution was the first victory against the worldwide system of slavery. Not Wilberforce. Wilberforce may have understood that, in an emerging capitalist society, slavery had gone through its evolutionary purpose, but it was the Haitians who struck the first blow.
“I know that blood runs through them from that time. And since the moment they organised that revolution, they have been defecated on, they’ve been undermined, yet they keep organising. And you look in their faces and they could well have been the faces that stood facing Napoleon’s army.”
Glover found out about the 1791-1804 Haitian revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in the early 1970s when he read The Black Jacobins by CLR James, the Trinidadian socialist historian (and sometime Manchester Guardian cricket correspondent). By that time, Glover was already a protest veteran who, as a member of the black students’ union at San Francisco State University, had participated in a five-month strike to establish a black studies department. But it made an enormous impact on him.
For more than 30 years, Glover has been trying to make a biopic about the leader of the Haitian revolution. True, the story of L’Ouverture has been told before, notably in a play by CLR James that was staged in London’s West End in 1936 starring Paul Robeson, and more recently in a French TV series starring Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis. But Glover believes his treatment will be the first to “have the epic scale these events require”.
But when will we see this directorial debut? In 2006, Glover assembled a cast including Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mos Def, and planned to shoot his film in South Africa and Venezuela, thanks to $18m (£11m) from one of Glover’s heroes, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Six years on, filming has not started. “We’ll get the film done,” says Glover. “We came so close so many times, you could almost taste it, man. We came that close and we’re going to do it.”
Why is the project so important to him? “Imagine a revolt where all those people who were enslaved and dispossessed in Africa, America and round the world, heard what had happened? You imagine what that meant to them?”
Glover met Aristide in 1992 when the former Catholic priest was ousted as president for the first time. Shortly after that coup, Glover was flying to Oakland to attend a rally for him. “I still had my makeup on when I got to my seat on the flight at Burbank airport. I look over to my right and there he is. I said: ‘President Aristide! I’m going to a rally for you!’ He always says: ‘The look on your face when you saw me.’ He’s been my brother and friend since that moment.”
What about Aristide’s alleged human rights abuses and corruption? “He’s a human being – none of us is perfect. But whatever he has done, he has never done with the intention of harming his people. He built more schools than at any time since the revolution; he improved healthcare. Each time he’s come back, he’s put his life in danger. He could have stayed in exile.”
But, to the disappointment of many – including Barack Obama – Aristide didn’t. Last year, Glover flew with Aristide from South African exile to Port-au-Prince. “It’s shameful the South Africans may have worked with US and France to stop him returning,” says Glover. When they arrived at Port-au-Prince, Glover was in Aristide’s car as they drove from the airport. “That car could only move as fast as people around allowed it. That was one of the most moving things in my life. That’s one story I’m going to tell my grandson.”
Does his country’s stance on Haiti outrage him? “A great deal of US policy is centred around exclusion and destabilisation. You take the largest party out of the process [Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas] – what kind of an election is that? We have a very interesting dilemma in Haiti at the moment. The current president Martelly was the choice of the state department and France and Canada, but if you’d had a free election, he would never have been elected.”
How does he feel now about the US’s first black president whose 2008 candidacy he endorsed? Glover laughs. “I’m not into personality worship. It’s essential that you clearly denounce those things you disagree with. Everything he has done in terms of war, I’m opposed to. How much of that is him following the line and how much his own thought processes, we don’t know. The bottom line is I think he’s a good man.”
Glover recalls that in 2002 or 2003, as a member of the board of the Algebra Project, a US scheme to improve maths skills among disasdvantaged children, he took part in a discussion on the future of education in Chicago. “A young state senator walked in and got involved in the discussion. I have to believe he’d come there because of a sincere desire to learn more and do something about that. He hasn’t delivered. We’re still waiting.”
Glover and I are sharing a sofa in an upstairs room. Below there’s a conference going on called Invest in Caring Not Capitalism: The Wages for Housework Campaign 40 Years On. It’s been organised by a group called Global Women’s Strike, one of whose leading members is Selma James, women’s rights campaigner and CLR James’s widow, who is promoting her new book Sex, Race and Class – the Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011.
Glover, despite his gender, feels at home. “Like Selma was saying, I’m into building caring as opposed to capitalism.” The world knows Glover as Detective Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon film franchise, as the brutish husband Albert Johnson in The Color Purple, as maverick alien-battling narcotics cop Michael Harrigan in Predator 2, as the laughably impotent US president in the eco-disaster movie 2012 and as Nelson Mandela in the TV movie. He’s just about to start work on Stephen Frears’ HBO film about Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam in which he will play Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American US supreme court judge.
But it also knows him as an actor who has said “hey” to radical political intervention activism more times than Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Mark Ruffalo and Sean Penn combined. He’s regularly on picket lines, campaigning for prisoners, speaking against US militarism and giving talks at Occupy protests. In 2004, he was arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington during a protest about Darfur. In 2010, he called on all actors at the 2010 Academy awards to boycott Hugo Boss in support of a pay dispute. He’s been an ambassador for Unicef, fought against apartheid through a campaign group called the TransAfrica Forum and sits on the boards of several groups, including The Black Aids Institute and the Jazz Foundation of America.
At 65, he could readily spend weekends dozing poolside in California rather than busting his hump at a fundraiser in this rain-soaked dime of a country. Where did that enduring political commitment come from? Glover locates it in January 1959 when he witnessed how his parents, Carrie and James, both postal workers, celebrated the Cuban revolution with their union. “I was a 12-year-old kid watching these workers celebrate. I never forgot that. I was around that union a lot and surreptitiously, vicariously listened to what they talked about, how they would strategise about an action. All that was part of my acculturation as a child.”
A few years later, Glover disappointed his parents. “About 1964 I supported the Nation of Islam because of Malcolm, you know? My mother was a Christian and said the Nation of Islam are nothing but a bunch of hoodlums. She was a mother looking out for her child. Plus, she was trying to grapple with the generational dynamics of what was happening. Her maturation was grounded in the civil rights movement.”
But how did this rad activist become a movie star and befriend one of Hollywood’s most disreputable conservatives, Mel Gibson? “I never thought I was going to be a Hollywood star.” During his 20s and early 30s he worked in community development projects in San Francisco. Stage acting was a sideline. Then he discovered Athol Fugard, the South African writer best known for Brecht-inflected anti-apartheid plays. “Once I started doing Fugard, I became more entrenched in my political work. I could see how you could use your work as an actor as a platform. He became my writer.”
In 1982, he was seen, aged 36, in an off-Broadway production of Fugard’s Master Harold … and the Boys by Robert Benton. The film director cast Glover in his 1984 Depression-era picture Places in the Heart as a black hobo turned farmhand opposite Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her performance as a Texan widow struggling to run the family farm. His movie career then took off. The following year he starred opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, as Celie’s abusive husband.
It is his performances opposite Gibson as an LAPD cop in four Lethal Weapon movies, though, that made Glover most famous. What’s his take on the charges of homophobia, antisemitism, domestic violence and racism against his former co-star? “Mel’s my friend. I can’t pass judgment on a man’s life. I know my working relationship with him was wonderful – absolutely unequivocally.
“We don’t agree on everything. My take on women’s rights may be different from his. I know Mel is a wonderful human being, a wonderful father. When I’ve asked him to do things on a couple of occasions, he’s done them for me. When I asked him to help raise money for the UN’s development programme, he came through.”
Glover yawns. “Are we good?” he asks, ever avuncular. “Because I think I’m done.” He needs a nap before he makes his fundraising speech for Haiti in the evening.
Downstairs, the afternoon’s panel discussion about the struggles against poverty, ecological devastation, military occupation, war, asylum and immigration is in full flow. Glover won’t be part of it, even though his radical credentials are unimpeachable. A few minutes later, I return to find all 6ft 4in of him curled up on that sofa asleep. It would have been a shame to wake him.