Sarah: Most people know you as an actor, but you've also been an activist all your adult life. Was there a particular event that politicized you?
Danny: I went to college at a time of the civil rights movement, the student sit-ins in the South, the anti-war movement, and the free speech movement. Freedom Summer, the massive voter education project in Mississippi, was 1964. I graduated from high school in 1965. So becoming active was almost a rite of passage.
Speaking of Freedom Summer, it's important to remember that lots of people died in the South to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote. It's also one of the reasons that civil rights activists and the African American community were horrified by the widespread accusations of voter dis-enfrachisement in the recent Florida elections.
When I was 20 years old, still in college, I began working in a tutorial program. The program was in the Western Addition — the Filmore area of San Francisco — a primarily black community that was in the midst of a relocation and redevelopment battle over who was going to control what the city looked like, what kind of jobs were going to be available, who was going to be displaced, and what the displacement was going to cost. Homeowners were fighting to retain their homes —they were fighting for their existence as a primarily African-American community.
As I look at this now — because I'm just evaluating it as I talk to you — this experience was key to those of us who got involved. We weren't just students, we were actively engaged in issues relevant to real people and real lives. We were taking theory and using that theory within the context of a real struggle. We were going to meetings, helping the tenant association write pamphlets, marching, and so on. That experience formed the foundation of my work as an activist, as a student, and after college doing community development work.
Sarah: Was there a link between that activism and the launching of your acting career?
Danny: I think so. My first work as an artist was protest art, agitprop (agitation propaganda) theater, political theater. Then, when I went back to acting after a time of doing community development work, I came into contact with a great writer — Athol Fugard. Fugard's work transformed how I saw art. What I saw in Fugard's work was how the highest level of art could be protest art but also tell universal stories about human relationships, about the human spirit, about the struggles and conflicts that make us each both unique and universal. Athol never really talked about apartheid. What he talked about is how people were divested of their humanity in the context of apartheid. About 18 years ago, I did a play of his on Broadway called Master Harold and the Boys; that was really the play that brought me to the attention of film directors.
Sarah: If you look at the span of your acting career, what have been the most rewarding experiences? Where have you been able to express yourself most fully?
Danny: I was able to do To Sleep with Anger, a very powerful film about African Americans, their spirituality, and the things that happened within a small community and a family. I was able to do The Saint of Fort Washington, on the relationship between two homeless men. The Lethal Weapon films provided a platform for me to do work that perhaps otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do.
Sarah: Have there been times when you've had roles that are at odds with your own goals and values?
Danny: I've always been able to make choices that don't embarrass me. If somebody asked me, “Why are you gonna do Predator 2?” I can justify it by saying that I've never seen a movie with an African American who fights an alien and comes out alive and becomes the hero. So I guess there's always ways of justifying it. Certainly films like Flight of the Intruder were in some sense at odds with my protests against the war in Vietnam. But rarely have I made choices that made me feel I was really compromising what I believe.
Sarah: Do your colleagues in Hollywood understand your activist side or do they think of you as sort of an eccentric?
Danny: Well I don't know because I don't have a real relationship with the industry. I have friends who've been activists during the anti-apartheid movement, around issues of homelessness, around the death penalty. You could also find me at a Boys and Girls Club benefit dinner as well, because I value programs that provide space for kids. I campaign and talk about literacy, and I find that I have allies who may not be allies with me on other issues, like issues around globalization. But we are able to forge an alliance based on a common purpose at a particular point in time.
Sarah: You've been involved in so many issues — literacy, poverty, apartheid, AIDS, globalization. What is the common thread?
Danny: They all represent major concerns about creating institutions that are life-affirming. If we talk about literacy, we have to talk about how to enhance our children's mastery over the tools needed to live intelligent, creative, and involved lives. If we talk about HIV/AIDS, we have to talk about who has access to health care and who doesn't. We have to talk about the death penalty from the standpoint that 85 percent of the men and women incarcerated are functionally illiterate. I don't believe you can separate education from incarceration rates. So there are all these inter-relationships.
Sarah: How do we work together more on these issues? We have separations between movements that are predominantly white and predominantly black. We have separations by issues ...
Danny: This is a major test for us. If we talk about the environment, for example, we have to talk about environmental racism — about the fact that kids in South Central Los Angeles have a third of the lung capacity of kids in Santa Monica. If we look at Houston, which is a very environmentally toxic place, we find that it has one of the highest levels of young men going to prison and also among the highest levels of illiteracy in the country. It seems that environmentalists have been able to separate those issues that pertain to the sustainability of life from the welfare of communities of color.
It's important for people of color to link up with issues around globalization, food security, health, the environment. It's also important for those who promote those issues within the white community — the somewhat privileged community — to talk about issues affecting people of color. We have to take leadership beyond our particular issues. We have to frame the world that we want to see not only in terms of our own children, but for all children. I believe that's the next step in our maturation.
Sarah: You've used the expression, “leadership of the whole.” Could you say more about what you mean by that and how you see your own role?
Danny: I'm really kind of searching my way on that. By leadership of the whole, I mean participation on a far greater level than we ever imagined in our system of government and the institutions within our communities. That leadership has to be focused on some very radical ideas that only we as 21st century people can talk about: making sure people have a livelihood, making sure people receive a living wage, making sure the environment, the Mother Earth, is embraced and cherished and not destroyed. Making sure people are healthy in what they eat, making sure we hold people and corporations accountable for the damage they do not only to our environment but to our institutions. This requires an enormous level of participation of the whole.
I believe that the majority of the people on the planet aspire to these goals and all of us are going to have to participate in our own rescue.
Sarah: You have played the roles of both oppressor and oppressed. In The Color Purple, you played an oppressor — an abusive father, and in Beloved you played someone who is recovering from the horrendous experience of slavery. What have you learned from the experience of being inside the skin of both the oppressor and the oppressed?
Danny: There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor, and there's a language that governs their relationship. My theory is that the oppressed's liberation is significantly tied to the oppressor's liberation. If we look at The Color Purple we know that the liberation of the female character, Ceely's, was directly tied to Mister's, and Mister's liberation was in a sense a result of Ceely's.
If we look at the issue of race, we often look at the bigger picture without looking at the kind of language that we have for ourselves. I think one of the major mistakes of all the movements that have pretended to be inclusive is that they have not constructed a dialogue of liberation.
Sarah: How do you imagine that a dialogue of liberation could happen in the United States? It seems to me that some of your films may be the closest we've come.
Danny: There has to be a level of trust and honesty, and a place where people of color can trust the dominant culture. There has to be a language of respect for the contributions of each other's cultures. It's not in the form of a monoculture; what globalization brings is a monoculture. The strength that we have is understanding, appreciating, and embracing our diversity. Trust begins with celebration and the building of another language.
Sarah: You once said that you get a fair assessment of who you are as a black man by reading black women writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. What have those writers taught you about yourself?
Danny: What I saw in those writers was a level of honesty and a level of love that is far too easy to lose track of when there is too much anger. There's something about the insidiousness of racism that doesn't allow us to look at ourselves honestly. We had to pretend there was no incest in the community. We had to pretend there was no spousal abuse in the community. We had to pretend that those were their problems, not our problems, which is a false pretense, a denial of who we are.
What I found in those writers was an embracing of love. They were saying, “this is who we think you are, but we love you.” They gave me a way of looking at myself honestly.
And they told me, through talking about themselves, how important it is to honor women's voices. They reinforced images from my own life of women who were decisive and courageous.
Sarah: You're in a position now, you've paid some dues, you're very successful. You could easily kick back and enjoy your accomplishments. Yet you travel in some of the poorest parts of the world. What is it like for you to go into places where there is such enormous hardship?
Danny: It is emotionally exhausting, not because of my position but because I know the scenario. Whether I am in Georgia or South Africa, the stories I hear about homelessness, jobs, adequate diet are the same. Certainly it is difficult to see that kind of abject poverty. You don't say, okay I've made my visit and now let me close up the gates. You don't sleep at night.
What surprised me the most was how much remains hidden from view, excluded from our dialog. We're seduced into believing that this big boom is happening. But many of those who are not caught up in the boom are living right on the edge.
I stood in some houses that were just like the ones I saw as a young kid in the South traveling with my grandparents. I saw the bare face of poverty. I saw it in the way people lived and the way they talked. Some of the people living in the homeless shelters are working people.
So the issue that comes up, front page, is the issue of a living wage.
But I was strengthened by how, despite the despair and despite the challenges, people are the orchestrators of their own change. In South Africa, women who had lived in shantytowns of cardboard or corrugated steel organized the South African Homes Women's Association. When I was there, these women had built around 100 homes.
Sarah: Where do you see possibilities for a change that is fundamental enough to address the kinds of issues we've been talking about?
Danny: What remains alive is the illusion — primarily here in the western world — that we can continue this rampant consumism. We have to question the idea that the more we consume, the more the world becomes equal. We know the system does not provide economic stability and progress for everyone, only for a limited few. People are working more hours and they have less leisure time, while many working people are further than ever from getting a living wage.
Are we capable of change? I don't know. There are rumblings of change in the responses to the WTO and the World Bank. But in the western world, it means having less. It means having fewer cars, less conspicuous consumption, less waste. There is a possibility in the developing world, I believe, to use technology and protect the Earth while creating sustainable, local economies. That is a possibility because those countries have not been inundated with the ideas of consumerism.
What forces will lead to a breakthrough?
I think the strongest argument is that we all share this planet, and this planet cannot sustain itself at the rate we're going. It's the one argument that philosophically connects all of us, and it has to be the starting point out of all the other things we talk about. I'm not diminishing the concerns about race and gender and all those other struggles. But I believe we have to start where we feel that we have a common thread — the limiting of our possibilities, even our existence, here on the planet. Yeah.