Actor Danny Glover is probably best known for his on-screen roles spanning nearly 40 years, but his appearance in Australia to address a trade union conference comes after a lifelong commitment to civil rights and labour activism. “I was invited here again, by First Nations people, 22 years ago. I went to visit men who were incarcerated and, like in my own country, they were disproportionately people of colour. Then I knew a little bit more about Australia.” By Alex McKinnon.
Danny Glover on acting and activism
The dingy, airless room set aside for Danny Glover to spend his Friday fielding a succession of interviews and TV spots feels more like an office cubicle than the Sydney Hilton. The carpet, in particular, has echoes of an RSL ballroom. A harried, solicitous official from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, drafted as Glover’s minder for the Sydney leg of his Australian trip, bustles in and out periodically, bringing sparkling water, chips and nuts in little bowls, and milky tea.
At 71, Glover’s schedule is manic. In Australia to address the country’s largest trade union conference – an unexpected choice, perhaps – the actor has proved himself committed to the cause, even waiving his usual speaker’s fee. Between spruiking the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign on radio and morning TV, Glover has spent his time meeting union members and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists.
While speaking to members of the Maritime Union of Australia, he signed the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to parliament and the formation of a Makarrata commission.
He made an appearance at the National NAIDOC Women’s Conference at the University of New South Wales, where he was swarmed by delighted attendees. “I must have shaken 400 hands,” he says, laughing. “My wife said, ‘You don’t even need me, getting photos with all these black women.’ ”
“I told a story about my mum. I came out of a very strong matriarchal system; I am my mother’s son,” he says. “[MUA Northern Territory branch secretary] Thomas Mayor placed it in some context. He said, ‘Some of these women have never been to the city. They come here, they get a picture of you, and it’ll be hanging on the wall when they go back home.’ ”
The trip is just the latest in Glover’s long relationship with activism and organised labour, which stretches back through his four-decade career in film.
“I first came [to Australia] 31 years ago to promote the first Lethal Weapon. I came here some time in the early ’90s in the service of opening a Planet Hollywood,” he says, failing to mention he attended the themed restaurant opening riding a horse.
“And then I was invited again, by First Nations people, 22 years ago. I went to visit men who were incarcerated and, like in my own country, they were disproportionately people of colour,” Glover says.
“Then I knew a little bit more about Australia.”
Glover’s first exposure to antipodean colonial societies, and their treatment of the original inhabitants of the lands they invaded, came even earlier. “I was about eight or nine years old,” he remembers, when he first saw Green Dolphin Street, a 1947 historical romance starring Lana Turner and Donna Reed as a pair of lovestruck sisters who follow the object of their mutual love, Richard Hart, to 19th-century New Zealand.
Among other reasons, the film stuck in Glover’s head because of its singular title song, “On Green Dolphin Street”, which has been recorded by a who’s who of jazz greats from Miles Davis to John Coltrane. But its portrayal of Māori people – played by Latino extras in face paint doing a mangled version of the Ka Mate haka – stayed with Glover as well.
“Not knowing anything about colonisation at the time, I didn’t realise what Green Dolphin Street said about the other side of the history that we’re told. If I’d had more information I would’ve been angry about the film itself,” he says.
Glover’s activism is unapologetically globalist, which means he sees parallels everywhere. During this Australian visit, he slipped away from his back-to-back commitments to catch a showing of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s adaptation of Dark Emu, historian and Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe’s award-winning book on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultivation and land management practices overlooked by white settlers and academics. He says it reminded him of similarly ignored and buried First Nations histories in Canada and the United States.
“All this information is coming out now,” he says. “In the 11th century, First Nations people were having major conferences all over North America deciding what their relationship was going to be with each other. How they were going to use the land, how they were going to sustain their spiritual connection to the land and treat each other. Somewhere down the line, some of the ideals around the Declaration of Independence came from First Nations people. We never hear the stories about that, as if these people had no concept of who they were.
“We walk on this land not knowing its history. Even right here, with the Opera House a few blocks down the street – we see it in its present manifestation as if that’s the only reality that exists.
“I’ve been quoting James Baldwin a lot. The Fire Next Time was the first book I read by Baldwin. I was 17 years old. His stuff was so visceral – you could feel it and touch it. He said, ‘If we cannot tell the truth about our past, we become trapped in it.’ ”
The struggle over whose past is remembered and who is silenced is a source of fascination for Glover. In April, he attended the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to the victims of racial lynchings. The museum’s hostile reception from conservative whites underlined how contested the right to write history still is.
“It has a room full of hanging poles, maybe 10-foot high, representing every single county in the United States, and listed on them are the names – when available – of people who were lynched. Over 4000 lynchings post-Reconstruction, and that may be just a fraction. The governor comes out with a statement the weekend it opens, saying it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. We’ve begun to take down statues of Confederate generals and everything else. He equates that past, which immortalises slavery, upholds slavery, with putting down every single name – black men, black women, black children – who’ve been lynched.”
It’s also a past that has deep roots in his own. For Glover, there is no difference between the historical and the personal, the sweep of events and the emotion of family. There is constant interplay in how injustices imprint themselves onto human minds and bodies, and how those scars reveal themselves years and generations later.
“Slavery is woven into the constitution, it’s woven into the psyche, it’s woven into human behaviour. There are so many ways in which the lives of African slaves and their masters were entwined, it’s inescapable. My mother is from the state of Georgia, which started as a penal colony. My mother’s hometown, Milledgeville – small little town that you can drive through in less than five minutes – was the site of what would become known as the Yazoo Fraud. There’s a little plaque on the old Georgia statehouse which tells of how that land became part of Mississippi and Alabama and became the epicentre for the expansion of slavery.”
Glover’s Australian tour comes at a pivotal time for unions, both here and in the US. Throughout 2017, he and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders unsuccessfully pushed for auto workers at Nissan’s Mississippi factory to unionise. Fuelled in part by the anti-union policies of the Trump administration, strikes in conservative states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona won better pay and conditions for teachers earlier this year.
However, the actor’s internationalist outlook and grounding in history tempers his enthusiasm for unions, a movement he admits has lost its way in the past.
“Often labour played a role not only in its own demise, but also working on behalf of capital in the undermining of movements abroad as well, most notably in Latin America,” he says. “All the major American labour leaders supported the war in Vietnam. The only person who came out and denounced that war in 1967 was Dr King, and a year to the day after his speech at Riverside Church, he was murdered. Not because he was a civil rights leader – he’d become something beyond that over the course of the war.
“The relationship we’re dealing with now – the relationship between war, racism and materialism – it was as if King understood, in his prophetic way, the advancements of consumerism and materialism. How they have changed our sense of ourselves.”
It’s a theme Glover gets a chance to explore in his latest film Sorry to Bother You, the sharp-toothed, deliriously weird directorial debut from rapper, screenwriter and communist activist Boots Riley. Released in July, Sorry to Bother You is a modern ode to anti-capitalism, skewering the racialised gig economy and offering union organising as the solution to the mess in which we find ourselves.
Like Glover, Riley blurs the line between activism and creative works. The pair share a history and political leanings. They both campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and frequently lend their support to immigrants’ rights campaigns. Glover and Riley’s father, Walter, a civil rights lawyer and organiser, spent years working with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president.
In Sorry to Bother You, Glover plays Langston, a veteran telemarketer working at a firm that cons the poor and desperate into signing up with WorryFree, a tech giant that provides free food and board in exchange for perpetual bonded labour – a kind of Silicon Valley slavery. Taking the film’s protagonist – the wryly named Cassius Green, played by Atlanta’s breakout star Lakeith Stanfield – under his wing, Langston tells Cassius the best way to succeed in the job is by cultivating his “white voice”, a hokey nasal whine that tricks white customers into regarding him as a human being.
As Cassius’s success has him ascend from the ground-floor bullpen to the coveted status of Power Caller, the trappings and temptations of money and power put him at odds with his former colleagues, who are organising for better wages and conditions. At the same time, using his white voice – provided by comedian David Cross – to sell weaponry to foreign governments and slave labour to mega-corporations begins to eat away at his conscience and identity.
Filmed entirely in Oakland, Sorry to Bother You also tracks gentrification’s steady erasure of black people from the communities they built. For Glover, a San Francisco native and former urban planner, it was an opportunity to raise awareness of an issue he has seen firsthand over the course of his life.
“I grew up in an area that was primarily black housing where normal people lived. I live 12 blocks now from where I grew up, and I never could’ve imagined the way it would change,” he says.
Taking the long view of political struggle – watching rights and movements retreat and advance, the interests of wealth and power reinvented in new guises – has given Glover a philosophical stance on where we are now, and where we are likely to be in a few years’ time.
“I don’t know how we get out of this,” he admits. “Struggle becomes what you do, whatever it is. The people who came before, they asked the same questions in their time, their space, their historical moment, that we ask ourselves now. I’m 71 years old. I want to believe in some future generation.
“Despite all that, we see these glimpses of the kind of world we want to create. They come about through our own behaviour, in our own way of figuring out the things that allow us to become more human. Every moment has its own inherent contradictions, which allow the possibility of resolving that contradiction only to find another conflict at the doorstep. That’s the way it is.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Glover in arms".
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