Dialogue: Danny Glover with Armond White
- Retrospective: February 7–29, 1992
While Sidney Poitier broke Hollywood’s color bar, Danny Glover was the first African American to break the Sidney Poitier bar by both making and sustaining a film career as a serious actor.
Glover has built a consistent film persona as a representative and an autonomous black American male. After filling a Poitieresque supporting role in Places in the Heart, he went on to play characters whose integrity is defined by something more than simply showing white characters (and white Americans) how proper they can be.
A creative choice of projects is what got Glover involved with films of such quality as Places in the Heart and The Color Purple, To Sleep with Anger, and A Rage in Harlem, as well as with the television version of A Raisin in the Sun. Taken together, these films make up the most interesting and varied display of American history and African-American culture achieved by any black actor in the past 10 years.
Whether playing righteous military men in Bat 21 and Flight of the Intruder; or policemen in the Predator and Lethal Weapon series; or different kinds of bad guy in The Color Purple, To Sleep with Anger, and A Rage in Harlem, Glover brings to each part a singular definition that broadens it beyond the mere type it might have seemed on paper.
In Lethal Weapon Glover presides over the first black middle-class nuclear family in Hollywood history, the Murtaughs. Astonishingly, they are integral to the plot—a black home is positioned as the sanctified entity defended through the violent vicissitudes of law enforcement. The Murtaughs embody positive principles (there’s an anti-apartheid sticker in the kitchen) that neatly and forcefully displace long-standing action-genre concepts derived from Hollywood’s automatic absorption and reinforcement of American society’s inequality and racism. This departure from the norm does not make Lethal Weapon a great film, but it does make it a subtly progressive one.
Glover’s dedication in the Lethal Weapon series paid off, making him a bankable star whose name enables artistic efforts such as To Sleep with Anger and A Rage in Harlem—both made by talented African American directors—to find financial support. While promoting the mass-audience comedy Pure Luck, Glover reflected, “You try to do the things you want to do. And some of the projects I’m developing [as a producer] are projects that I specifically want to do as my statement about what I think art should be about. I don’t often get a chance to do those things unless I initiate them.”
A sophisticated and honest understanding of movie codes welcomes the turnabout that allows black characters a non-pejorative appearance, that permits them to live in a manner previously reserved for screen whites. This gives black viewers something more than the customary vicarious involvement, and it demonstrates to white viewers something other than an egocentric rehashing of emotional and political values.
Glover raises the level of audience involvement. He acts out a new, unsuppressed screen concept of a black man; he is a quiet hero but not an idle one. While he does not perform daredevil stunts in his action-genre roles, it is surprising to notice how subtly the weight of these movies shifts toward him.
As with Poitier’s work, there is a widespread benefit to be gained from this actor’s commitment to playing credible black men. No doubt this commitment reflects much of Glover’s own artistic interest in making films that add to the mythology of American behavior and experience.
Armond White, film critic for New York Press, is author of Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World and the upcoming Heroic Conscience: Ethics vs. Hollywood.