Q&A: Actor Danny Glover on Africa Activism

Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
March 19, 2003
Danny Glover does not simply enter a room. He fills it with his bigger than life smile and outsized frame, with hands that swallow those of everyone he greets, with movie star fame and quiet confidence.

When Danny walked into our Base Camp studio to talk about his work with Transafrica Forum I knew his commitment well. In 1999, Glover donated a million dollars to this group, which seeks to influence world economic, educational, and governmental policies toward Africa.

As chairman of the group, Glover has spent endless hours preaching about the terrors of the AIDS epidemic there, where in some places 1 in 3 people have the HIV virus. He talks perpetually about a continent three times the size of the contiguous U.S. with vast savannas, monstrous deserts, lush forests; but also staggering poverty, crushing national debts, ancient tribal rivalries, the terrible vestiges of apartheid and colonialism.

As Glover settles onto the stool opposite me at the interview table, I notice the gray sprinkled into his hair by 55 years of living; in his face the echoes of a professional life started as a social worker in his native San Francisco.

But there is more. In his appraising eyes, I see not an actor but an activist intent on bringing serious change to the ancestral home of all humankind.

Tom Foreman: So many Americans look at those overwhelming problems in Africa and want to say it's hopeless. It's too big. It's too troubled. It just can't be fixed. Why shouldn't they feel that way?

Danny Glover: Well, it seems daunting. It seems like it's an impossible task, but it is a task that we can work at. It is a task in which we can make some change. We have to create an idea that fundamentally we can change what is happening on this continent. We have to believe that fundamentally. We have to believe that our contribution to this first part of the 21st century is that we can deal with the issues of AIDS, we can deal with the issues of poverty, that we can deal with the issues surrounding the gap in development.

Tom Foreman: Why should we want to do that for Africa?

Danny Glover: Because the suffering of any human being diminishes all of us, and it's our responsibility. If we take Christian doctrine, if we take Islamic doctrine, whatever doctrine we take; if we want to be an atheist, that doctrine says that we focus on that, that we address that…that we draw our human resources, we draw our fiscal resources, our mental resources to addressing that suffering.

Tom Foreman: You talk a great deal about debt relief. What difference would that make? How would that affect things?

Danny Glover: Countries around the world, not only Africa, are burdened with enormous interest that they pay on debt. That (debt relief) would allow countries to reallocate money to education, reallocate money to civil society, and reallocate money to infrastructure development, health…all those things. I think debt relief would do that. How can we use all our ingenuity, all our technology to construct communities which are safe, which are secure, which deal with issues around gender equality, which deal with the issues around equitable distribution of resources, which deal with conserving the world's resources.

Tom Foreman: You're not just talking about Africa though. One of your great concerns is about troubled communities in the U.S. and you see this as a jumping off point for dealing with all those things.

Danny Glover: Well, I think so. I mean, when you see people disempowered or marginalized they're not only in Africa. They're here as well.

Tom Foreman: You did not set out to be an actor.

Danny Glover: No. I did not.

Tom Foreman: So how did it happen?

Danny Glover: Acting was way of me politicizing at one point in time what I felt was happening; what I felt was going on in the world.

Tom Foreman: You started appearing in activist plays?

Danny Glover: I started appearing in plays that had a message and that was part of the black arts movement. When I first stepped on the stage when I was twenty years old, some thirty-five years ago, part of the black arts movement was to do relevant plays that would empower and give voice to the needs of my community. And that's how art was used. So art was a vehicle for liberation, art was a vehicle for change.

Tom Foreman: So you were a social services guy working part time as an actor?

Danny Glover: When I came back to acting after spending three years working for the city and county of San Francisco, I began to look at it as a way of creating some recreational activity for myself. Something to do after work. And the more and more I became engaged in it, the more and more I became immersed in the art of acting the more and more I began to see that there was some kind of message that went beyond the propaganda of the propaganda plays that I did. And then I discovered Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright, in 1975 and that took me on another trajectory. I believe if I had not discovered Fugard, his words, his language, his use of relationships, his poetry; I don't think that I would have been an actor.

Tom Foreman: Still, how did it happen that you went from being this part-time social services worker, part-time actor to suddenly resonating with a vast audience?

Danny Glover: Well, it's timing.

Tom Foreman: It's more than that. There were many people trying at the same time and they did not have that success.

Danny Glover: You as an artist don't want to know what "that" is. All you're trying to do is find some truth for yourself. And that's all you're trying to do is take that moment, and move to the next moment in the play. That's what you're trying to do. You're not putting together the pieces of what you're doing, because if you do it becomes self-conscious.

Tom Foreman: So when the moment came that suddenly you were a superstar…

Danny Glover: (laughing) I never said that…

Tom Foreman: At that moment did you say "I have a new opportunity with my fame and my influence to forward these very things (for Africa) I've worked on all my life?"

Danny Glover: No. It was just a continuum. I mean, I was doing plays in 1977, 1978 at small theaters and raising money for the African Liberation Support Committee. We would have a performance and ask people to bring in medical supplies or bring in clothes that we would send to Zambia, which would go to people engaged in liberation struggles.

Tom Foreman: How much does that guide your choice of roles? You do Lethal Weapon. That's just popular theater.

Danny Glover: There is social value in everything you do. What you created in Lethal Weapon was the possibility of a different relationship between one man who was black, one man who was white, and a family. So there are always ties. I never talk about a role. I talk about a story. What are the values that are inherent in the story?

Tom Foreman: Would there be roles out there that you would not take? That your conscience would tell you, you shouldn't do?

Danny Glover: Well, I don't know what that is. I'd have to see what that role was in the context of a story.

Tom Foreman: It's a complex choice to make.

Danny Glover: It is complex. But the fact is we begin with investigating the human dynamic and understanding it.

Inside Base Camp With Tom Foreman and the National Geographic Channel
Tom Foreman's award-winning show may be watched in the United States on the National Geographic Channel. To find out more about the Channel, how you can get, and for previews and listing information of its regular programming, please visit the Channel Web site: Go>>

News Alerts From the National Geographic News Desk
Receive regular e-mail alerts about breaking National Geographic news. Send an e-mail to the news desk with the word "Subscribe" in the header field. The service is free and we do not share your e-mail address with anyone else.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.