PORT TOWNSEND — Danny Glover rose at 3:30 in the morning on Friday. He had a plane to catch out of New York City, where he’d been with Robert Redford for the premiere of “The Old Man & the Gun,” their brand-new movie.
A few minutes before 2 p.m. Friday, he strode up the aisle of the First Presbyterian Church in Port Townsend for a “Community Conversation,” a free event in the Port Townsend Film Festival, which is running in eight downtown theaters through tonight.
Glover is the 19th annual festival’s special guest. He was chosen not only for his film work — some 165 movies and television shows — but also for his social activism around the globe.
Causes he champions include health care as a human right, confronting climate change, workers’ rights and the environment. The movies as a vehicle for social change is a keystone of his long career.
Upon arrival, Glover embraced Charles Burnett, the Academy Award-winning director whose work includes “To Sleep with Anger,” a movie Glover, by agreeing to star in, jump-started back in 1990.
Glover also greeted Rais Bhuiyan, founder of World Without Hate. The activist, after surviving a point-blank shot in the face by a man seeking revenge after Sept. 11, 2001, has worked for peace ever since.
So this conversation brought together Glover, a 72-year-old San Franciscan; Burnett, 74, born in Vicksburg, Miss., and Bhuiyan, 45, Muslim and an immigrant from Bangladesh.
A few hundred people from across the region packed the church, applauding the three men as moderator Martha Trolin introduced them.
“What is that Chinese saying … ‘May you live in interesting times,’ ” Glover began.
He then spoke about growing up in San Francisco, being a paper boy at 13, delivering the Chronicle after reading its articles about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and other historic events — and wanting to be like those civil rights warriors.
Glover went to college at San Francisco State in 1967 to major in economics. After graduation he worked in city government — and took some acting classes at night.
It was his casting in “Blood Knot,” South African writer Athol Fugard’s play, that started the career that would make him internationally famous.
“I dedicated every performance to something. I must have dedicated a performance to [Nelson] Mandela a hundred times,” he remembered, adding that on other nights, he would dedicate his work to a homeless person he’d met.
The discussion turned next to the “interesting times” of today and how, amid the divisions in our society, we can move forward together.
How do we build a better world for our young people, Glover asked, extending his long arm toward 5-year-old Kasongo Thompson, in the front pew with his mother, Mindy Walker of Port Ludlow.
Bhuiyan spoke, with passion in his voice, about the need for dialogue even when it’s difficult.
“It’s high time for all of us to make each other — respectably — uncomfortable,” he said to applause from the audience.
“Visit a mosque,” and you will be welcomed; “visit a church, a synagogue,” and be willing to engage in conversation despite your discomfort.
“Take time to check your moral compass. Take a moment to make your voice a little bit friendlier,” Bhuiyan said. Respect others “as human beings, first.
“We all love something. We’ve all lost something.”
Burnett, for his part, offered a memory from his time in Italy: one that shows conversation need not always be so complicated. During the Venice Film Festival, he decided to greet a stranger in his own language.
“Buon giorno,” the American said carefully.
The Italian gave him a blank look. Silence. Then, a smile, and a bigger smile, like sunlight.
After Friday’s, a flock of fans lined up to meet Glover, or to greet him again after many years.
Sharyn Miller of Port Angeles came with her family to thank him for his work in “Missing in America,” his 2005 movie about Vietnam veterans struggling after their return home. The film is based on a story by her late husband Ken Miller, a Vietnam vet who lived in Port Angeles.
The movie is about healing, said Sharyn, a fervent admirer of Glover’s work.
Friday night, Glover and Burnett came back under the bright lights at the American Legion in downtown Port Townsend. After screening “To Sleep with Anger,” Rocky Friedman, owner of the Rose Theatre and a Port Townsend Film Festival board member, interviewed the pair, asking who and what has moved them over the years.
“I’ve been inspired by everyone I’ve worked with,” said Glover, “because I want to be inspired by them.”
If he had to make a list, he’d put Muhammad Ali at the top. The fighter articulated “my own sense of rebelliousness,” while Harry Belafonte is also a hero.
Warming to the topic, Glover added:
“Inspiration is something you carry with you on the journey. It helps you navigate.
“My first inspirations were my parents. My parents were the most beautiful people I ever met in my life.
“It’s about the journey, and the people you meet on that journey. That journey gives you the essence of who you are.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.