"What I think about is ... what will I have left behind that has contributed towards instructing the generations that have come after me, and are still before me, that will help them."
You produced your own “independent” films at a time in Hollywood when it was unheard of for a black artist to do so.
When Hollywood knocked, we did get an edge on doing things a little differently. But it was so paternalistic and patronizing that, although it pretended to have liberal dynamics, it was merely a codification. Many of us were deeply frustrated that we were not getting out there to make the right noise, to have the right parts, to have the opportunity to reveal our human experience in a deeper way. What’s the point in playing a one-dimensional black character? I am multi-dimensional. Hollywood wouldn’t allow it. You couldn’t be a romantic lead because to show love and humanity and to embrace and to care reveals too much about the fact that you’re quite different from what we say you are. You’re a rapist, you’re preoccupied with your sexuality, with drugs—so we were always held to those narrow considerations. And so I said, why don't you just take the reigns in your teeth? Put up your own resources. Gather your own friends, gather your own people and take a shot. When we started to do that, Hollywood began to yield to us more. And all of a sudden in this capacity of independent filmmaker, I overcame a lot of barriers.
At the same time you ended up being “blacklisted” in the 50s. Do you see any parallels between the McCarthy era and our political climate today?
I not only see America headed in the direction of great similarities to the McCarthy period and what went on in America during those crucifying days, but I see America headed to places that can go well beyond. Today, we have something that is most horrific, written under the banner of “homeland security.” And the extremes of those laws allow any citizen to be whisked away without anyone’s knowledge, without charging the individual, and holding them for an indefinite period of time. The individual can disappear and no one ever knows what happened to them. That is a nightmare. That is the basis of a totalitarian state. Do I have faith and believe that we’ll get out of it? Yes. But it’s very hard to coalesce the forces that are gonna make the difference. Because the very force that can make a difference against us becoming a totalitarian state are the same forces that are so divided.
As you look at your life, what is most important to you?
I guess what I really think about is, at the time of my death, what will I have left behind that has contributed towards instructing the generations that have come after me, and are still before me, that will help them. When I made the decision to invest in the art form that I’ve embarked upon, I quickly found out that my capacity to endure did not reside with the banks, did not reside with the entities that controlled media, did not reside with those who controlled whether your song’s heard or not. What became terribly important for me was to make sure I maintained a relationship that would directly involve me with my public. So my investment was to stand on a stage where people could listen to me. That was where they heard me at my best. If you’ve never seen me perform, live, then you’ve never really seen me. My records do certain things, but that’s not the best example of who I am. The real personification of who I am was through the experience of the theatre. I said things people never heard before. And I always made sure that by the end of a show, everybody was singing. Everybody was engaged in it. I worked for human rights, I worked against capital punishment, I worked for people who were crushed and disenfranchised. I sang the song of the Jew, I sang the song of the Arab; I sang the song of the Japanese. I made sure I sang all those songs when I went to these countries. And through this we attested to our civility, to our humanity.