Gilbert Glenn Brown (Photo: Kurt Yue)
J'can Gilbert Glenn Brown makes his mark in Aretha Franklin biopic

A career in acting was far from Gilbert Glenn Brown's mind until high school.

“I'm inspired by those who came before me, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, to name a few. I've always been creative, whether it was writing my own stories, scripts, drawing my own comic books, I loved movies and watching theatre.” Brown explained.

“After seeing a performance by Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center's Positive Youth Troupe, a youth musical theatre company. This is where I saw people that looked like me, spoke like me, dressed like me and gave voice through performance to the very issues and concerns I was facing. It all came together for me and that's when I began my journey as an artist.”

In Respect, the big screen film based on the life of the late American singer and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, Gilbert Glenn Brown plays the role of a very important name in the US Civil Rights Movement — Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Respect opened in US theatres on August 13 and debuted at the box office in the number four position with more than US$8.3 million. Locally, the film is now showing at the Palace Amusement Cinemas.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, Brown, whose parents are from Jamaica, spoke about playing the role of Martin Luther King, career and his Jamaican roots.

Kevin Jackson (KJ): Where in Jamaica are your parents from? Do you still have relatives in Jamaica?

Gilbert Glenn Brown (GGB): My father is from Portland, Long Bay specifically, and my mother is from Westmoreland. I have plenty family still on the island, honestly, on both ends and possibly every parish in between.

KJ: When last did you visit Jamaica?

GGB: The last time I was in Jamaica, was in December of 2018. I went to participate in the burial and celebration of my grandmother's life. I made plans with family to come back the following year, but 2019 proved to be one of my busiest years and then 2020, as you know, we were hit with COVID, so any travel had to be pushed [back].

KJ: What are your thoughts on Jamaica's film sector. We had ground breaking films, including The Harder They Come in the 1970s. Should we have been more ahead in this arena? How can we catch up?

GGB: I think that there has always been a thriving film sector in Jamaica post The Harder They Come, Smile Orange, Countryman, Dancehall Queen, and more recently Sprinter. I do believe there's something to be said to connecting to the diaspora, in the US, in Canada, in the UK to have a more international presence as well as up the quality and scope of film in Jamaica. Jamaican films have heart, soul and a vibrant voice that needs to be on a world stage more consistently. Jamaica's voice is diverse, complex and creative and definitely not simplistic or defined by one genre and that should and can be represented. Jamaicans in Hollywood is a group I'm honoured to be a part of and this is a part of our mission in entertainment. “We deh ya!”

KJ: How challenging was the audition for the role?

GGB: Extremely, I mean once you get past the nerves that can come up with the process and the size, scope and importance of the project.

KJ: How much did you know of MLK before the role?

GGB: Quite a bit. I mean who hasn't heard of MLK! As a child, my parents were adamant about me being conscious of my heritage, of those who came before and their sacrifices. So, I've researched quite extensively on my own. However, having the chance to play him a few times in my career has allowed me to connect with him on a deeper level. Not just as the “icon” but as a man, a man who saw a need, who used his skills, his gifts to stand for civil rights for all, at times reluctantly and through great distress and fear.

KJ: How much research did you have to put in for the role of MLK?

GGB: A whole lot! I'd already done quite a bit, but there's always space for more information and a deeper connection.

KJ: Do you think that playing the role, you got to know Martin Luther King better?

GGB: Yes, I certainly believe so. I do believe this is the case with any artistic endeavour, any role an actor takes on is a chance to learn more about the subject/role as well as one's self. I've had the opportunity to embody Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr several times on stage in Katori Hall's Mountaintop and Leslie Lee and Charles Strouse's Martin: Before the Dream and in the film Respect. Each show, each frame, every performance, each chance I got to step into those hallowed shoes, was an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the man within the icon. To connect on a deeper level, beyond the surface, to not just perform or give a caricature of the man but to give the audience a glimpse of his soul, his heart and his spirit.

KJ: Were you aware that MLK was a close friend with Rev CL Franklin, Aretha's father, and the rest of the family?

GGB: I knew of Aretha's connection to Martin initially, but I became aware of the connection between CL and Martin during the filming process. In hindsight, it makes so much sense that they were acquainted. Being on the preaching circuit and talking about freedom and civil rights, especially during those days, was dangerous business.

KJ: What did playing MLK open your eyes to?

GGB: It opened my eyes to how progressive and relevant Martin still is today. His work began to expand to include not only civil rights for blacks in America, but human rights, workers' rights, poor people's rights. Seeing there is more that connects us than separates us.

KJ: Have you seen the movie since it opened?

GGB:Yes, I attended the world première in Los Angeles. It was an amazing night.

KJ: What are your thoughts about the film?

GGB: Selfishly… I believe the film is fantastic, it reconnects Aretha to the world on a deeper level. There are things many people didn't know about Aretha, her demons, her loves, her family dynamics, all of her trials and tribulations. While it's difficult to cover everything in 120 minutes, I believe the film hits the chords it needed to honour the Queen of Soul. Liesl Tommy (director) crafted a beautifully raw love song to Aretha.

KJ: Where in the states do you reside?

GGB:I reside in Los Angeles, California but I also live part of the time in Georgia.

KJ: Did you study acting and at which institutions?

GGB:Yes, while in high school as I became more interested in performing, I began my training in the North East Bronx with Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center's Positive Youth Troupe (PYT), from there I continued on to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

KJ: What was your first-ever acting gig?

GGB: My first acting gig… was actually in elementary school. I went to a predominately white school and was cast in a play as George Washington believe it or not. Then performing with PYT on our tours, but my first film project ever was in a film called Raising the Heights, where I was the lead.

KJ: What has been your most challenging role to date?

GGB: Every role presents its own unique set of challenges and opportunities, but some of my more challenging roles have been on stage: Terrell Alvin McCraney's The Brother's Size, Katori Hall's Mountaintop and Janine Nabers' Serial. Black. Face., to list a few.

KJ: What was it like working alongside Jennifer Hudson who plays Aretha Franklin in Respect?

GGB: It was a dream. She is so beautifully generous, focused and committed to the work that it made all of our interactions, every moment magical. The entire cast honestly was simply top notch. Liesl Tommy, the director, remarkably set the tone and guided the ship masterfully.

KJ: Any advice to aspiring actors who wish to make it in Hollywood?

GGB: There are a few things: First, I would have to say simply this… Don't stop. Being in a business where you can hear “No” a lot more frequently than the “Yes” can be disheartening at times, but the key is don't let that deter you. Every profession, whether you're an attorney, fireman, doctor… whatever, presents challenges… but really, they are opportunities to hone your steel, to craft it into what you want, what you see fit. As I was coming up, my mentors would always tell me to keep going, because that next door you may decide to give up on, just might have your blessing on the other side. Everything you've worked so hard for, prayed for, sacrificed for, could be right there, but you have to keep going. Community/family is very important, whether they be blood or chosen, they are important to your success in anything. A large part of my circle and community in Los Angeles is Jamaicans in Hollywood. You have to find and/or create your own at times. Study, study, study! Always be in the process of learning. Live your life. Yes, be focused on your career, but live while you're pursuing it. Everything we do, informs our work, trust me. Have a clear vision of what you want for your life, your career, dreams are great, but vision is paramount. Have faith and a strong sense of self, know who you are before you get in that room, whether starting out, at the top or any place in between, or believe me…. if you don't know… they'll try to tell you. So be unapologetically you. Lastly, enjoy what you do. Love what you do. Be willing to do it for free (intentionally speaking of course!)

Footnote: Gilbert Glenn Brown is a member of the two-year-old group Jamaicans in Hollywood, a California-based organisation which hopes to bring authenticity to Tinsel Town when it involves their culture. Jamaicans in Hollywood was created to give a voice to Jamaicans in the industry, to promote Jamaican storytelling, and to increase worldwide awareness of the importance of this authenticity.

Gilbert Glenn Brown (right) shares a moment with Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson on set of the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect.
BY KEVIN JACKSON Observer writer

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