x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Blind justice

Sunday interview Danny Glover talks about his deep political convictions and his unshakeable belief in Hollywood's power to change the world.

Danny Glover is a global star, but the actor remains committed to grassroots activism.
Danny Glover is a global star, but the actor remains committed to grassroots activism.

There are many things you notice about the actor Danny Glover on first sight. There's his height, an impressive 1m 90cm in his bare feet, of which more later. Then there is that ear-to-ear smile beloved of Lethal Weapon fans; the expressive, liquid brown eyes that show every emotion and the slightly creaky posture that speaks of the effects of long-haul flights on a 62-year-old frame that has been pushed to its physical limits over the years.

His shoes, however, are just about the oddest I have ever seen, more like socks with individual toes, made of a light material that looks comfortable and functional but somewhat freaky. He roars with laughter: "It's funny how you come to shoes. I was looking at this young man's shoes today and they had long pointy toes. If I wore those shoes it would look like I was wearing skis. All my life I've done a lot of cardio. I usually have tennis shoes or athletic shoes, and I was always trying to get shoes that I could take to the shower with me and wash out. I saw some guys in Utah wearing these one day and asked them where they got them. They said, 'Just down there at the store', so I just went and bought them and I've been wearing them ever since."

He admits that it gets harder and harder to get up every morning and exercise and anything that helps - even weird shoes - is a bonus. Glover was recently in Dubai for the film festival, helping to promote Blindness, the movie directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Julianne Moore, Alice Braga and Glover, about a community affected by "white blindness". He describes his character, the Man with the Black Eye Patch, as someone who comes into this new, visually challenged world already half-blind.

"I think he understands where he is within his own truth, within himself. He is completely unapologetic - he is who he is and he accepts who he is. When you are blind you try to adopt another kind of sensitivity, so this role was definitely a challenge from a physical point of view," he says The film, like the book by José Saramago, directly addresses the concepts of sight and point of view, and asks the viewer to see things from a different perspective.

"Once you put a blindfold on, you engage the other senses," Glover says. "What does it feel like under your feet, what are the sounds like, what does the air feel like? The difference between the air between the doorway and the room you came from is amazing. The touch of different fabrics, the bed you sit on - all those sensations become sources of information. There's a certain humility about it as well. You live in another world. Those are the kind of things that work for me. We all come to that in our own various ways but out of humility, I think, comes love, and love can't happen without humility," he says.

Glover is, of course, best known for his role as Roger Murtaugh, Mel Gibson's partner in the four Lethal Weapon movies. The money he has made from the highly successful franchise makes it possible for him to do the low-budget projects that mean so much to him. "There are very few chances to do a franchise. Warner Brothers decided to do a buddy movie and it just so happened that one of the characters was black. I had some cachet at Warner Brothers and they decided I would work in that role. Great things happen as a result of something like that. It gave me the platform. It happened at a point of time when a lot of money was being made and it allowed me to make a lot of money, too.

"It allowed me to do the kind of films that I want to do. For example, the third Lethal Weapon allowed me to do a small film with Matt Dillon about two homeless people. It was one of those things I wanted to produce. Those things might not have happened, had it not been for the franchise, which in its own way deals with important issues. The second Lethal Weapon was banned in South Africa because it talked about apartheid before apartheid was over. The first dealt with the proliferation of drugs. The third one talked about violence and guns in the community and the fourth was about immigration. There was a theme behind them all."

And will there be a fifth? Glover says that he doesn't know, but adds that he thinks that the Lethal Weapon concept may have had its day. "For my thinking, it's over. There are so many other things happening in this world. I'm just excited about being able to work with somebody like Fernando Meirelles. I watch films from all over the world that are important to me. I love Truffaut, Fellini, the Spanish director Vicente Aranda. I watched his movie, Carmen, 10 times."

He also enjoys playing the bad guy, most recently in Shooter, in which he plays the devious Colonel Isaac Johnson. However, one of the roles that he is keen to draw attention to is the 1997 movie Switchback. "I played a serial killer," he says. "You can't say that he's good or that he's bad or be judgemental. When I researched serial killers I found out that they were sociopaths and, as a result, often engaging and ingratiating characters."

He was also the abusive husband to Whoopi Goldberg's character Celie in The Color Purple. "That role was not bad to me. He wanted to be loved. He couldn't find it and his behaviour was a reaction to his inability to find it." Time and time again Glover is motivated to speak out on social issues or to make films that draw attention to things that cause him concern. "When I was nine years old I watched the Montgomery bus boycott. I wanted to be like those people who marched," he says, referencing the black community of Montgomery, Alabama's 1955 protest against racial segregation on public transport - an event that sparked the whole African-American civil-rights movement.

He has spoken at rallies on the subjects of immigration, housing, Aids and the payment of farm workers. He sits on various boards, such as Vanguard Public Foundation, The Algebra Project, The Black Aids Institute, Walden House, Cheryl Byron's Something Positive Dance Group and supports the United Farm Workers of America. Since 1998 he has also been an ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme and he chairs the board of the non-profit, non-governmental organisation TransAfrica Forum.

Glover was the son of Carrie and James Glover, both postal workers who were active in their union, the NAACP. He grew up in San Francisco, where he attended George Washington High School, then American University in Washington, DC. He matriculated from San Francisco State University where he met Asake Bomani, whom he married in 1975. The couple had one daughter, Mandisa, who was born in 1976, and are now divorced.

At university, Glover joined the Black Students Union, a group that was instrumental in brining an ethnic studies department to the college by staging a five-month-long student strike. He later got a job in San Francisco's city government. "From the ages of 20 to 30 I worked in community development," he explains. "I went to meetings and talked to people and tried to use politics to effect change. I wasn't someone on the outside. I had to write reports and do evaluations, work out reading and housing programmes, and figure out what worked and what didn't. That's what I come out of. It engaged a part of my life that you don't just abandon. I work with the unions on health care and pensions and have always done so."

It wasn't until his late thirties that Glover decided to become an actor, enrolling in the Black Actors' Workshop at the American Conservatory Theater, a regional training programme in San Francisco. He then resigned from his city-administration job and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream. Glover has never regretted this decision. "I am one of the rare few that can make a living out of this and take care of people I love. I just get excited about taking words from a page and then using them on screen. Acting humanises me and I still love that."

Still strongly political, Glover is cautious about celebrating the election victory of Barack Obama, even though he supported his candidacy. However, this is simply a pragmatic approach. "He's going to get a lot of suggestions from a lot of people," he says. "The question is about what we do now. A utopian experiment takes a lot of informed and active citizens to make it work. That is as true today as it was 175 years ago.

"I don't think for a minute that prejudice in the United States and prejudice in the world has ended with Obama. We would be conning ourselves if we thought that. "If Dr Martin Luther King was alive today he would celebrate, but he knew exactly what we had to work on. I think we should be very cautious. Everybody is celebrating around the world. This is a really interesting shift and you can't get away from the fact that Obama is a man of colour. The US is no longer the sole economic power in the world. The changes that are happening are irrespective of the US.

"Economic powers like India and China are emerging, and China wields extraordinary military power. Obama has to be very careful how he deals with this. All over the world countries are redefining and realigning relationships in foreign policy. The page is turning in terms of dynamics and democracy. It is going to be very interesting to watch. "As Frederick Douglass, the African-American freedom fighter once said, 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will'."

Glover feels that the election of Obama comes from an overwhelming demand for change in the USA after what he thinks of as George W Bush's failed foreign policy decisions. His husky voice picks up speed as he warms to the theme and he cheerfully ignores signals from a team of publicists anxious to move him on to his next appointment. "What we saw was insanity, somebody trying to change the course of history. I think there's an opportunity now, but we're going to have to make Obama do stuff that he doesn't want to do if we want to change. This is a difficult time, thanks to failed economic policies and much more. We have to begin to localise the economy. Globalisation has produced a crisis and put people in a position where there's no food security. Why aren't we talking about farming and making people self-sustaining? Why does the corn from Iowa have to be shipped to Zimbabwe? All these countries spend so much money importing food. Why aren't they helped to grow it themselves? Are these the things that Obama is going to confront?"

Glover adds that he is not interested in a career in politics because "you can get much more done from the outside". He also believes that film, has the power to define and change the way people see themselves. "There has been no character in US cinema like Sydney Poitier," he considers. "He changed the political view of African Americans. Cinema reflects things. It really does have the power to effect change."

pkennedy@thenational.ae