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The daddy of them all

Had it not been for the power of poetry, cinema may well have lost out on one of its greatest villains.

Born in 1931 in Mississippi, the late thirties and early forties found James Earl Jones -- the child who as a man would create the voice of Darth Vader -- almost entirely mute through the effects of a crippling stutter.

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 “I know that child very well,” Jones says, “he’s still a very important part of me: he’s a child who listens, who learns and understands.”

But he is no longer silent.

The change was inspired by an English teacher who noticed Jones’ love of the written word and challenged him to confront the condition. “I’d never thought of acting until it was suggested that lessons could help me try to speak again,” he recalls, explaining that he had given up trying to speak between the ages of four and 14.

It’s little wonder his enthusiasm for using words as tools has not waned over nearly half a century spent fashioning a career in film.

“I’m not a star, I’m a jobbing actor; I’ve never really had the luxury to pick and choose, so it doesn’t have to be poetic when I look at a script. But good writing is always easier to memorise because it has a certain human rhythm to it, whether it’s something written for the stage or screen, or lecture,” he says.

Before finding his now famous basso profundo voice, Jones spent much of his youth reflecting on the differences between the grandparents who raised him.

“I spent a lot of quiet, happy times with my grandfather, fishing, and those were formative periods. He taught me a lot about justice.”

“But I was also raised by my grandmother, who was a very angry woman. She was part Cherokee Indian and part black, and she resented all of the three communities. Anger against the whites for selling people into slavery. Then anger against the Indians for having black slaves too, and against the blacks for letting it happen.”

For his own part, Jones himself seems happier and more relaxed in his own skin than anyone else you might chance to speak to.

Yet some of this remembered rage was surely channelled through his Herculean portrayal of dissident boxer Jack Jefferson, inspired by the real life story of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, in The Great White Hope (1970).

The film garnered plaudits, and this year is the 40th anniversary of the starring role that led him to become the second black actor, after Sidney Poitier, to earn a Best Actor Academy Awards nomination.

It saw Jones reprise a Broadway role from the play he still prefers to the screen version. As a pugilist Jack Jefferson is peerless, but his success charges black crowds with an energy that unsettles the status quo. A merciless assault on first the morale, then the morals of the man drives the action.

“The film lost something of the poetic structure of the stage play,” he maintains, despite the fact it undoubtedly provided him with his breakthrough screen role.

“The character of Clara for instance, “ he explains, (referring to the black ex-lover who feels scorn for the white Eleanor who partners Jefferson until her tragic demise), “was originally more of a Cassandra character, very Greek in terms of drama. In the film she becomes a stereotypical angry black woman. The film was reduced from a poetic universal drama, to a smaller social drama.”

What the film does provide though, in a scene where champion Jefferson is reduced to performing an Uncle Tom’s Cabin vaudeville act while slumming it in Europe, is an uncanny, if symbolic, premonition of the slew of Blax­ploit­ation movies that were to follow in its wake. “That trend had nothing to do with art. The actor Moses Gunn, whom I knew, was only one of a few who had any extensive training. While Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Superfly (1972) achieved something innovative, for many of them, like Blacula (1972) the word exploitation was key. All Hollywood is exploitation, but some of these were crass.

“After The Great White Hope, I was ‘hot’ as they say in Hollywood, and I read the galley-proof of Shaft (1971). But I remember saying: ‘I’m a country boy, I can’t relate to this urban vernacular, I don’t understand it’. I’m glad I made that decision.”

A year on from President Obama’s first month in office, and less than three weeks before this year’s Oscars ceremony, the 79-year-old insists he has no interest in following the flow of Academy Award voting patterns, especially in terms of race, although he must still be considered a dam-breaker to those who do.

“I was nominated for an Olivier here for the current run of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I’m very honoured,” he says, but the Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe Award winner feels artists shouldn’t place too much stock in prizes. He is thus unconcerned that despite his home country’s clear message it has few qualms having a person of colour at the helm of a big project, current release. Precious, which he’s eager to see, finds Lee Daniels becoming only the second African-American nominated for Best Director in Oscar’s 82-year history.

But he does sympathise with Daniels’ admission he was at first reticent to present the tale of a barely literate, overweight, black incest victim to the Cannes Film Festival. Some commentators stateside have been appalled by the portrayal.

“It’s not about political correctness, “ Jones says, “but there is a hypersensitivity to how this will go out to the black community -- but no one character is the people; the writer should be free. The writer should have been able to give us Precious on screen years ago. But it’s perhaps just as well they didn’t. Perhaps we’re more mature now.” It’s soon time for Jones to ready himself for another intense night as Big Daddy in the actor’s home from home: the searing atmosphere of Tennessee William’s Mississippi in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s London run. As well as the Olivier nomination here, the same role on Broadway has earned him the Outer Critics Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play in the US.

This weekend, the Glasgow Film Festival is set to welcome him with an illustrated interview; I’m curious to know which, among his numerous films, he is most proud of.

“I like Cry the Beloved Country, Field of Dreams, Claudine, and A Family Thing,” he admits. “ Another that I cherish is Matewan. They are simple stories, simply told, and we can never forget that before we are stars and before we are anything else, we are storytellers.

“We can’t forget that the first drama came around the campfire when the man told of how he got the bear and how the bear nearly got him. He can embellish it a little, as long as he can tell a good story.”

 

James Earl Jones will discuss his career in an illustrated interview with Glasgow Film Festival Co-Director Allan Hunter, at 15.30 on Sunday, at the GFT.

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