Art Should Be Brave...
James Earl Jones on Apartheid, Racism, and Hollywood
His great range as an actor, in tackling roles from Shakespeare to Star Wars, is what has made James Earl Jones one of a few legendary American film actors.
His role in Cry, the Beloved Country as a minister whose son is condemned to death as a murderer is one Jones had been waiting years to play. Already touted as a possible Oscar contender for the part, Jones said the role was one of his most challenging and rewarding ever.
During a trip to New York for the film's premiere last fall, Jones sat down with several publications to discuss his love for the role -- and of the film's gentle yet poignant message.
Steve Hammer: You had committed to Cry, the Beloved Country years before it was shot. At what point did you decide to take the role? Was it when you saw the script?
James Earl Jones: Way before that. I had read the book years ago and had always wanted to be in it. My big question was: How would the gentleness -- which I think is the key to my character -- how would it go over with young black people? My main concern was that it not appear as something from the past, as a museum piece. I said, "When Mandela is freed, we'll see." My character mirrors Mandela's gentleness. When he was freed, I knew I would make this picture. Later, the script came along and I loved it.
SH: How do you see the film in terms of race relations in America today? How do you think it will play with young people today in the wake of the Million Man March and the O.J. trial?
JEJ: What we think about race relations may be different a month from now, or a year from now. What's interesting to me about the news business is how all-important things seem to be one day; then it's gone the next. I think what the O.J. trial did is open up wounds. I hope films can transcend that. I hope this film can transcend that. But art should be brave and, unfortunately, Hollywood has some very bad habits that keep bravery from happening. The biggest challenge I had in this role was to keep my anger after all, he's laboring under apartheid -- in abeyance. I had to hang on to that gentleness.
SH: Even as famous as you are, do you encounter prejudice in your daily life?
JEJ: I'm a realist and I acknowledge it. But, fortunately, for me, it's usually the kinds of thing I can say I won't let get to me. In a way, you are as big as what makes you mad. And if something petty makes you mad, that's how you get reduced. Not that you have to forgive, I'm not saying that. But you can't let it reduce you. You can't be encumbered by insanity. And it is insanity, racism. You cannot let it stop you. And when something gets you bitter, it stops you.
Hollywood has some very bad habits. And racism is part of it. Residual racism. Unconscious racism. The young directors who are coming on the scene can help that.
In some ways, The Great White Hope was ruined by Hollywood. By that residual racism. So often in Hollywood, to make it -- I call it "greasing the penis," you know, smoothing out the rough edges. Pardon the expression. But the stage production was much rougher. It had a lyric poetry to it that was removed as it made its way to film.
In the stage production, the characters were monolithic. The film was more of a social story of a black man and a white girl, when the story was really much larger than that. In this film, much of Alan Paton's original vision has been kept. Unlike, say, The Scarlet Letter [laughs], this vision was not reconceived for the film. Cry, the Beloved Country is a film about redemption. Is it a "race movie?" Well, I guess I don't know what a race movie is. Hollywood certainly tries to latch onto summaries like that, that it's a black movie and only black people will go see it. I don't understand that. As a child, I used to see John Wayne movies and I would walk out of the theater like John Wayne. Human beings are human beings; maybe I'm naïve.
SH: You're known for your bravery and dignity in the roles you play. You have an image above that of other actors. We don't read about you in the scandal magazines.
JEJ: Not yet. [laughs]
SH: But you're very well known. Is that a large burden to carry?
JEJ: Yes. But I think it's more of a function of choices you make. Richard Burton, for example, by himself was never harassed. With Elizabeth Taylor, he was always harassed. He would get the clothes ripped from his body. It was meant as a compliment, but it was a form of harassment. The same with Sean Penn. By himself, his life is okay. With Madonna, he was harassed constantly. Certain combinations sometimes are so explosive, so dynamic, it creates hysteria among the public. I've never done that. I've never caused that kind of hysteria.
You deal with that notoriety, if you will, in different ways. I've tried to go against this so-called image by playing villains in different roles. The only time I think it was a mistake was playing a petty criminal in a film called And Then the Hero. You've not seen it.
SH: No, I haven't.
JEJ: Don't bother. It's horrible.
SH: When your character cried, the audience cried.
JEJ: When you believe in a character, you sometimes cry for that character. Sometimes it's not appropriate. You have to hold it back. But at the end of the film, on the mountaintop, you cried. I don't believe, myself, that you can pray someone into heaven, but that's what my character was trying to do.
To have that sort of strength, to summon that energy, is what I want to do in my life and in my craft. n
Steve Hammer is a staff writer for NUVO Newsweekly, Indianapolis Indiana. Article reprinted with permission © 1995 NUVO Newsweekly