Over the course of more than 30 feature films in 30 years, Morgan Freeman has played everything from a U.S. president to a pimp, detectives to convicts, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X to a deferential servant in the Civil Rights-era South.
Freeman will turn 66 this year but was 50 before he ever made his splash in Hollywood, playing the pimp Fast Black in 1987's Street Smart. Prior to that breakout, he struggled to find meaningful Hollywood work, instead spending much of his early career on the New York stage and on a couple of more high-profile TV gigs -- for the children's program The Electric Company (where an entire generation recognizes him as Easy Reader and Count Dracula) and a couple of years as a regular on the daytime soap Another World.
Now Freeman is one of the most familiar and most respected presences on the American screen, with two new projects out, the Stephen King-related, Lawrence Kasdan-directed Dreamcatcher, which opened last week, and the smaller-scale drama Levity, which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival and will now open the fourth annual Memphis International Film Festival, which opens Thursday, March 27th, and runs through Sunday, March 30th, with screenings at Malco's Studio on the Square and at the screening room in nearby First Congregational Church.
Freeman, who was born in Memphis, who keeps a home in nearby Charleston, Mississippi, and who has numerous business and charitable interests in the area, most notably an upscale restaurant (Madidi) and blues club (Ground Zero) in Clarksdale, will be on hand as honorary chairman of the festival. He'll be giving a Q&A after the opening-night screening of Levity and will be honored with a retrospective of his work throughout the festival.
Executive-produced by Freeman, Levity is the directorial debut of successful screenwriter Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and the story of a released convicted murderer (Billy Bob Thornton) who seeks redemption at an inner-city community center run by a minister played by Freeman. Kirsten Dunst and Holly Hunter also star in the film, which is being released by Sony Pictures Classics. Freeman will be introducing the opening-night screening of the film, and both Solomon and Hunter are slated to be in attendance.
Other Freeman films being shown throughout the festival include those boasting his three Oscar-nominated performances. Freeman received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Street Smart (1987), in which he played the pimp Fast Black opposite Christopher Reeve's opportunistic reporter and became something of a cause célèbre when powerful New Yorker critic Pauline Kael opened her review of the film with the rhetorical question "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?"
Freeman's two Best Actor nominations came in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Daisy, which won Best Picture and Best Actress for co-star Jessica Tandy, is still perhaps Freeman's most high-profile work, a role he originated on the stage. A controversial film in some circles, it depicts the 30-year relationship between a black chauffeur and his white employer in the Civil Rights-era South. In The Shawshank Redemption, Freeman plays "Red," a longtime inmate at Shawshank Prison who befriends a new arrival played by Tim Robbins. The film was only a moderate success at the box office but has since become perhaps the most popular cult film of the decade.
The other Freeman titles being screened are Lean On Me (1989), Freeman's first lead role, playing a controversial Paterson, New Jersey, principal, the bat-wielding Joe Clark, a sort of Buford Pusser of the public education system, in a "rousing" story directed in typical fashion by underdog-made-good specialist John Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid); and Glory (1989), the Civil War film in which Freeman portrays a grave digger turned enlistee in the U.S. military's first all-black regiment. The festival will also screen Bopha! (1993), Freeman's first and heretofore only directing effort, a sharp, responsible look at apartheid in South Africa, starring Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard.
Freeman has a rare presence in contemporary American movies, his ability to be both authoritative and warm, to project wisdom and experience and repel irony something akin to that of actors during Hollywood's 1940s and 1950s heyday. He lends a gravitas to almost every film he's in, a quality that has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers, who frequently use him in voiceovers, not only for documentaries (such as Partners of the Heart, a recent medical documentary Freeman narrates and which is being shown at the festival) but also in feature films such as Se7en and The Shawshank Redemption.
Yet the special quality that Freeman brings to the screen may have limited his roles, despite the range he showed early in his career. The bulk of Freeman's filmwork, especially over the past decade, seems confined to a few specific types of roles: He has played sidekicks (to Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, to Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), mentors (to Chris Rock in Nurse Betty, to Denzel Washington in Glory), and authority figures (a dream president in the disaster flick Deep Impact, a CIA honcho in the disaster flick The Sum of All Fears). His avuncular, or even fatherly, persona has seen him frequently placed opposite younger white actresses -- Renée Zellweger in Nurse Betty, Monica Potter in Along Came a Spider, Ashley Judd in Kiss the Girls and High Crimes -- his age and commanding air presumably negating the potential for interracial romantic interaction that might trouble the Hollywood gatekeepers.
But Freeman frequently does wonderful things with these roles. His hit man Charlie in Nurse Betty is fascinating in that it takes advantage of his screen presence -- he's polite, dignified, above the fray -- but then warps that persona in compelling ways. He's also a cold-blooded hired killer with a penchant for salty language. And Freeman's father-son pairing with Chris Rock seems to be asking for its own movie or even a series. Equally memorable is Freeman's Det. William Somerset, Brad Pitt's world-weary partner in Se7en, perhaps never more affecting than in a brief, devastating scene in that film with Gwyneth Paltrow, helping turn a Grand Guignol scenario into a more socially incisive brand of bleakness and pessimism.
But Freeman's screen highlights are many: His sly little appreciative double take over Betty's ability to poor coffee and watch her soap opera at the same time in Nurse Betty; his first appearance in Glory, seen by a downed Matthew Broderick on the battlefield, his face barely visible through the sun and his voice the voice of God ("You all right there, cap'n?"); his warm, well-worn companionship with Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven ("I don't know that it was all that easy back then, and we was young and full of beans") and his classic-Hollywood ability to sleep in front of a campfire with a hat pulled down over his face without looking silly; sipping Yoo-Hoo in Street Smart and then calmly asking his girl Punchy (Kathy Baker) which eye she would prefer he remove; his brief, manic appearance in the Robert Redford vehicle Brubaker, emerging from shadow as a solitary-confinement prisoner seeking a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Freeman took time out during a recent press junket in L.A. promoting Dreamcatcher to talk with The Flyer about his career, specifically some of the films being shown at MIFF. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation.
Flyer: Street Smart was your first major film role and, other than maybe Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver, it may be the most compelling portrayal of a pimp ever put on screen. Did it give you any pause to take such a potentially clichéd role that early in your film career?
Freeman: It didn't give me any kind of pause. I jumped at it. I auditioned for it and I got the part. It was the first time I'd had a major role in a movie and it was a real pivotal character, and I just ate it up. No qualms, no misgivings, no second thoughts. And, as it turned out, the director gave me carte blanche.
Frequently, that type of character is portrayed in a flamboyant manner, but in Street Smart the character seems more realistic, more understated. How much of that was the part as written and how much of it was you shaping the character?
That's me shaping it and being given the freedom to shape the role to my vision.
One of the interesting things about that character is the calm he exhibits even at his most dangerous. How did you develop that particular characterization?
Well, interestingly enough, I was living in an upper-echelon neighborhood in New York, but at the same time in the block between West End Avenue and Broadway it was like hooker heaven. There were a lot of ladies up on Broadway, and they would take their clients down to the park, Riverside Park, or to little SROs, single-room occupancy hotels that they would use. So you could see the interplay between them and their pimps on the street. These girls would be chastised right there on the street. And I saw that, how these guys would do it. No yelling. No screaming. Just vicious. So I knew what that was about. I knew how to do that.
At the time, what did you make of what Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Street Smart?
What if somebody said you were America's greatest writer?
I'd think they were crazy.
There it goes. I'd just come off the New York stage and I'd had a few small parts in films and I guess she'd seen some of the work I'd done. I know that my range is good and that I'm capable of doing different things, but to say best? It's a stretch, so I just had to let that go.
Driving Miss Daisy. I'm guessing that the Hoke Colburn character was about the age that your father would have been or of other adults that you grew up around.
So how much did you draw on your own past to form that character?
Everything. I grew up in Mississippi, so the Southern attitude, the atmosphere -- I knew it intimately. I knew the language. I heard the language. I knew the song of this language. I knew the tune of it. I loved doing it. I loved the whole idea of the piece, because it was one of the few times that the South got portrayed as something other than where people had a hard time living.
Is part of playing that part acknowledging that Hoke Colburn himself is sort of an actor, in terms of showing him weighing how deferential he should be against preserving his own dignity?
No, because that's ingrained. You learn that at an early age. But I didn't see it as him being an actor but rather him knowing how to manipulate, how to "dance," how to get what he needs.
It's a film that's drawn strong reactions from different segments of the audience. It has drawn resentment from certain segments of the black audience. Do you think that may have resulted from audiences misunderstanding how active Hoke is in negotiating his situation?
Well, audiences look at things from today's eyes, and if you show them things from yesterday's eyes they can't interpret it, they don't get it. In the case of Driving Miss Daisy, I say to those who didn't get it, tough. Too bad.
But does it bother you at all that the film seemed to instill a bit of nostalgia in some segments of the white audience?
Yeah. [Laughs loudly] Yeah but not too much.
Lean On Me. You were playing a character there in Joe Clark who was still alive and who was actually involved in the project. How did your personal opinion of Clark color that performance?
I thought he was a great man. He towered. Being in school with him and watching, knowing what he was doing, how he dealt with children, how they responded to him. He could stand in the hallway of an incredibly large inner-city school and call names, almost anyone in there. And these kids come up to him, they touch him, they hold on to him. And his stated purpose was "These kids need a parent and I'm gonna be it."
So you didn't have a critical take on him, as far as his tactics or
No. I just found it an interesting part of his nature that, as good as he was to the kids, he had an awful lot of animosity towards their parents and their teachers, because he thought they were letting these kids down. [The students] weren't where they were because of their own shortcomings but because of the shortcomings of those whose task it was to raise them.
Bopha! was your first and so far only directing job. Why nothing since?
I directed Bopha! because I'd been talking with my agent about it, and some other directors told me I should try it because I had a good eye, and the opportunity came and I did it. But it's not like I ever wanted to change careers, to become a director. It's entirely too much work.
Is there a different sense of ownership you get as an actor versus as a director? Is it easier as an actor to let go of something once you're done with it?
Yeah. As an actor, your input into the collaborative act is finite. It's encapsulated in the part that you play, that one role. As a director, you're the ship's captain, and though the ship is able to run itself, when it flounders everyone looks at you.
Have there been films you've worked on where, as soon as your work is done, you've written them off?
Oh yeah, there are some I've never even seen.
Any you'd care to name?
[Laughs] Well, it may be better not to say.
One interesting thing, looking at your entire career, is that, more than perhaps any other black actor of your era, you seem to take on roles where race is only an incidental factor. If you accept that as a legitimate observation, to what degree have you sought out those roles and to what degree have the roles sought you out?
I have not sought them out; they've sought me out. [Pauses] I'm not a professional black man, so I really go along with the idea that we live in a multicultural society, we don't have to keep harping on this question. It's best to let that question go and provide entertainment based on society as we see it. If you look out at the world, you can seen all kinds of people interacting in all kinds of ways, and race is not necessarily the bottom-line arbiter of these interactions. So I've had the great good fortune of being cast without regard to race.
One kind of role that doesn't show up in your filmography is that of a romantic lead. Is that a result in part of coming into the business at such a relatively late age?
Yes, I think that could very well explain a lot of it. No such thing has crossed my desk. I don't recall ever turning down that type of part. But also comedy. I've not had a shot at comedy.
Nurse Betty is sort of a comedy.
Sort of, sort of. But not a knockdown, drag-out kind of comedy.
That's an interesting part, though it isn't being shown at this festival. It seems to be a part that takes advantage of your screen presence in terms of the gravitas that you bring to the screen, but then twists it, so that there's a little bit more of an edge to the character.
Yeah, I thought he was an interesting character to play: an assassin who has a son [laughs] that he's training? Giving him grown-up pointers on how to do your job as a professional and then walk away clean, and then doing that with Chris Rock, a flat-out comedian. That was something that I looked forward to.
David Thomson, the British film critic, in his entry on you in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, compares you to some of the great character actors of the classic Hollywood era. Ward Bond and Walter Brennan, people like that. What do you think about that?
I was influenced by those films; I grew up with them, but Ward Bond? Ward Bond was never anything but Ward Bond, so I'm not sure about that. I think of myself as a character actor, and I think of people like Ward Bond and John Wayne as more personality-type actors, though ones who were able to transcend themselves. I try very much to de-Morgan my roles. n
In addition to the Morgan Freeman retrospective, the highlight of this year's Memphis International Film Festival is a new addition, the International Masters series, a selection of five celebrated foreign films from five different parts of the world: Mexico, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. What follows is a critical rundown of the scheduled films.
Sunday, March 30th, 2 p.m., Studio on the Square
How can something so revolutionary seem so modest now? Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 debut film and still only major hit, Breathless changed all the rules and influenced multiple generations of filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese and Hollywood's 1970s "new wave" to hip American filmmakers (particularly Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Steven Soderbergh), to cutting-edge directors around the world (perhaps most notably Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai).
When Jean-Paul Belmondo's anti-protagonist turns to speak directly into the camera and the film jump-cuts all over the place, Godard is freeing the very idea of a movie from its chains of convention. He said that all he needed to make a movie was a gun and a girl, and this is the proof. Like the Beatles and Stones, who came a few years later, this was a European revolution based on a love of American culture that, in turn, forever altered American culture. A can't-miss.
Saturday, March 29th, 4 p.m., Studio on the Square
And speaking of can't-miss: Memphians may be attracted to Amores Perros in order to catch a glimpse of the work of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who was recently in Memphis filming his American debut, 21 Grams. But anyone who cares about film shouldn't need a local connection to be interested in this, a film that, much like Breathless, announced a movement, signaling a rebirth in Mexican cinema that has since brought the likes of Y Tu Mamá También and El Crimen del Padre Amaro to Memphis screens, all starring Gael Garcia Bernal, perhaps the Jean-Paul Belmondo of this Mexican new wave, who stars in the first of Amores Perros' triptych of stories, all linked by one calamitous car crash.
With its linked stories and action-packed narrative, Amores Perros received a lot of comparisons to Pulp Fiction upon its 2001 release, and with good reason. But Inarritu took exception to this, telling one interviewer at the time, "I have been a victim of violence, not through videos and comics, like Tarantino -- my family has been held up, my mother was beaten." And that indeed is what separates Amores Perros from so many American new-wave influenced films: It's a work based not on merely a love of movies but on real life.
The Scent of Green Papaya
Sunday, March 30th, noon, Studio on the Square
This first feature from Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (who would go on to make Cyclo and The Vertical Ray of Sun) won the 1993 Camera d'Or (best first film) at the Cannes Film Festival and was the first Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Oscar. Set in two separate Saigon households, in 1951 and 1961, respectively, The Scent of Green Papaya follows the exploits of a 10-year-old servant girl in a middle-class home in its first section and then in the second section the same character as a young woman, this time working in the apartment of a young composer. Viewers used to Hollywood fare might find it plotless, as most of the narrative action occurs on the periphery, but The Scent of Green Papaya is lush and atmospheric, its serene, delicate visual style subtly conveying a director's homesick ardor for the Vietnam of his youth.
Saturday, March 29th, noon, Studio on the Square
Filmed when the director was 78, Faat Kine is the most recent work from Ousmane Sembene (best known for Xala), the most celebrated filmmaker in the history of African cinema. This 2000 comedy centers on the title character, a Dakar gas-station owner and mother of two illegitimate children. Kine is a thoroughly modern protagonist, fully in charge of her family, business, and sex life, and Sembene uses her story to provide a gentle portrait of changing social mores and societal tensions in contemporary Senegal.
Friday, March 28th, 2 p.m., Studio on the Square
This 1997 film is probably the most celebrated work of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose recent Afghanistan-set film, Kandahar, screened in Memphis last year. Gabbeh is a departure for Makhmalbaf, who had specialized in grittier urban fare. Instead, this is a colorful rural tale with elements of magical realism, set amid a southern Iranian tribe who weave colorful carpets as storytelling devices. A simple film with a mythical feel. -- CH