Q&A: Morgan Freeman on New Film and Race in Hollywood

The veteran actor has tough talk for Blacks crying foul in Tinseltown.

Posted: 04/04/2011 04:14 AM EDT
Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman is an Academy Award-winning actor who has an equally successful career as a narrator for several films including March of The Penguins, War of the Worlds and a host of small-screen productions. The 73-year-old Batman Begins star once again lends his authorative, smooth narrative voice to the big screen for the IMAX documentary Born to Be Wild 3D. The film highlights the lifelong work of two women who run animal orphanages in Southeast Asia and Kenya.

Freeman spoke to BET.com about why Wild was so important to him, how race is rarely a factor in his work and why he could have made a great Jimi Hendrix in a biopic.


Born to Be Wild
documents the work of Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, who rescues orangutans in Borneo, and Dame Daphne M. Sheldrick,
who helps orphaned elephants in Kenya. Why did you want to narrate this documentary?
I thought this particular project highlights a couple of ladies whose courage and dedication should really be trumpeted. It also highlights the danger of what humans are doing to the rest of the life forms of the planet. If we continue eliminating other forms of life, we’re going to be eliminating ourselves—we’re going to pay the price for that. People think that we're dominant, but so were the dinosaurs.


At what point in your career did you realize you had a voice tailor-made for narration work?

During the time I was on The Electric Company, about 1974.


No disrespect to the 2.0 version of The Electric Company, but I think old school Electric Company did it best. What made the original series so special?

We were coming on the heels of Sesame Street, which was very popular with parents. It capitalized on the fact that young children should have teachers instead of nannies. The Electric Company came along with same producing company, Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), and Joan Ganz Cooney, so that same excitement of learning was the driving force. It was an ensemble repertory company.


Seeing you as Easy Reader and as a younger Joe Clark
in Lean on Me showed me you could have been cast perfectly as Jimi Hendrix. Has anyone ever told you that?
Yes. I could have done Jimi Hendrix upside down. I’m left-handed too. I’m a big fan of Jimi's. I read some of the bios on his life, he’s a very interesting guy.


What’s your take on what’s been dubbed as the Black men blackout, i.e. the lack of African-American actors on stage, at this year’s Oscars?

I think we need to get over that s--t. How many Chinese do you see? You don’t see them out marching and s--t. Oh God please. I think … We need to get over it, that’s all.


Have you ever felt pressure to represent your people in a certain way in any of your films?

I don’t have any "my people." I never had to deal with that part of my thing. Once, I straightened my hair when I was doing The Electric Company, and this woman comes up to me and says, "You…you… shouldn’t!" And I said, "Hold it. You don’t dictate my image. Get away from me." And another one said, "But you’re a black man!" And I said, "Oh? Do tell!" After I played the president in Deep Impact, somebody said to me, "How does it feel to play a Black president?" And I was like, "Whoa, whoa. I didn’t play a ‘Black’ president. I played the president." I don’t have to play Black.


And yet you’ve never shied away from controversial film portrayals of Black men like the pimp in Street Smart or the driver in Driving Miss Daisy. Has there been a special blueprint you've followed throughout your career?

I’m not shaped by anything at all except if it’s a good story and [has] an interesting character. I don’t have to worry about my image. My image has to do with my work. I’m not John Wayne. I’m an actor. I want to do anything that tells a good meaningful story. The part I play in it is just a part of that story.


Born To Be Wild
3D hits theaters exclusively in IMAX on Friday, April 8.

 

(Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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