Danny Glover's new documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, profiles the Black Panthers. 'I'm a child of the civil rights movement,' he says
by Damon Wise, The Guardian,
"I think we have to be really observant as consumers," says Danny Glover. "The people we want to be can be reflected in our cultural art, and we can give value to that. We can do that. It can be entertainment – there's nothing wrong with that – but it can be enlightening as well. There is a choice."
|Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left, and Huey Newton.|
He pauses: "Just look at what kind of films are being produced now, and what the film industry is attempting to do, and it seems like it's reverted back to some kind of past vision of the status quo. Look at the films. You see what movies get made, and what movies don't get made. You see what technology has done, and how they're using it in the industry now to kind of glorify these abject symbols, whether it's Transformers, Batman, Iron Man."
He laughs: "It always ends with 'man'! But come on, let's be real. Studio executives are sitting on the edge of their seats on Sunday night, waiting for the box-office returns. That's got nothing to do with people's lives."
Slightly abridged (for reasons of clarity and space), this is Hollywood actor Danny Glover getting into his stride at 7.45am on a Thursday morning. He's 65 now, and in half a hour he will be leaving for his daily three-mile run along the beach near his San Francisco home. But Glover is in no hurry. For once, he's not talking about his roles in The Color Purple or the Lethal Weapon franchise. Instead, he's talking about his life and his commitment to issues, and his enthusiasm is impressive.
Glover is taking time out from a seriously busy schedule to promote The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, an extraordinary documentary he recently produced that was assembled by Sweden's Göran Hugo Olsson from reels of film found in the basement of a Stockholm TV station. Though shot by outsiders – the white, sandal-wearing European opposites of the film's very American subjects – the footage offers an incredible insight into the lives of the western world's foremost black radicals at an incendiary time in US history. There's Stokely Carmichael, former leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), articulately voicing his frustration with the concept of non-violence. There's "political prisoner" Angela Davis, speaking bitterly from her jail cell about the oppressive legacy of slavery. And there's a battle-weary Eldridge Cleaver, co-founder of the militant Black Panther party, on the eve of taking himself into reluctant exile. On the soundtrack we also hear contemporary interviews from Erykah Badu, ?uestlove from the Roots and Melvin Van Peebles explaining how influential the movement was on their lives and work.
The film came to Glover via his production company, Louverture Films, and, by chance, the actor was shooting in Sweden at the time, making a low-budget indie called Dear Alice. "Göran took a flight from Stockholm to come and meet me in this little town," Glover recalls, "and we talked for a couple of hours, just talking about the material, trying to put it in some sort of context. I wanted to tell him about my own experience, because the period is reflective of my own political maturation as well. I was in San Francisco at the time of the formation of the Black Panther party. I was a member of the Black Student Union; in fact I was part of the governing body of the Black Student Union during that period of time, so we had a very close relationship with the Black Panther party and people like Huey Newton, H Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver."
'They were trying to reimagine the whole idea of community participation and democracy … it gave people an opportunity to see themselves as actors in a reinterpretation of what democracy actually means'
"Look, I'm a child of the civil rights movement," he reflects. "I was born 65 years ago – this places me right in the centre of that. But what does that all mean, before the movement and beyond the movement? What this film has done is kind of put into context a whole period for me. It put into context the meaning of the period, as well as the reflections of people who were trying to do something – I think – extraordinary. They were trying to reimagine the whole idea of community participation and democracy. That what it means to me. It gave people an opportunity to see themselves as actors in a reinterpretation of what democracy actually means."
Indeed, the most surprising thing about The Black Power Mixtape is the lack of any agenda: the Swedish news crew just listen and shoot. "That's exactly it," says Glover. "Remember, the Bobby Seales, the Huey P Newtons, when they were on their home base, when they were in the US, they were constantly under attack. Under surveillance. They were also under attack from the larger corporate media. So whenever they had their say, whatever they said, whatever their actions were, it was filtered through some sort of propaganda process. J Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panther party's programme of giving free breakfast for children was the greatest danger to American security! The idea that feeding children breakfast is a danger to security is ludicrous. So [on Swedish television], these people were free to express these ideas."
Glover cites his family as preparation for his involvement in politics as a student at San Francisco State University. Both his parents were members of the NAACP, but, more importantly, they were members of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, which became increasingly politicised as a result of the civil rights movement. He recalls watching the Montgomery bus boycott on TV at the age of nine, and, at 12, seeing his parents' union celebrate the victory of the Cuban revolution.
Is he sad, then, that the initial momentum of the Black Power movement seemed to peter out, as it does in the documentary. "Well, part of that is what happened," he sighs. "There was a dissipation of people's energy. We're talking about a long period. Many people went into exile, and there were a lot of things happening with respect to other movements. What happened in Chicago at the Democrat convention in 1968 [when protesters were met with heavily armed riot police and faced serious jail terms] was really the beginning of the war on activism and activists, when the government and the corporate media tried to vilify their actions and their beliefs."
Glover, though, has lost none of his political fire, having recently been arrested in Maryland at a protest in support of workers' rights. As he says of his friend Angela Davis, Glover is a man who likes to "speak truth to power", but, given that the public has a low opinion of actors meddling in politics, might there be a danger in that? Glover thinks not: "I don't do a Harris poll to find out what people think of what I think," he snorts. "That's not my responsibility. I act as a citizen first, and if people have a problem with that, well, I can't lay around at night thinking about it. Of course, I'm a black actor in this business, so I know that there are certain limitations that face me. But, as an artist, I have the fortune of having Louverture Films, and that gives me a platform."
A platform for what? Glover doesn't hesitate: "A platform to express what cultural art can be. And should be."