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Filmmaker Interview: Bill Duke

Dark Girls is a new documentary that uses interviews (notably the powerful testimony of many different African-American women) to confront the controversial issue of “colorism” — the notion that darker-skinned blacks face more prejudice. It premieres this Sunday at 10pm ET on the OWN network. Dark Girls was produced and co-directed by the great character actor and filmmaker Bill Duke. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Duke about the new film as well as his Chicago-shot masterpiece The Killing Floor and his criminally underrated 1992 crime movie Deep Cover, a staple in my Film Studies classes.

bill-duke-photo-by-michael-danger-prods.

MGS: How did Dark Girls originate?

BD: It basically originated from us wanting to give a voice to the voiceless: us (growing up) as dark-skinned young men and seeing what our families went through — the young ladies in our families. We did a year and a half or two of research. And then after the research we began to put some film together and interviews. And then we contacted experts from psychiatrists, spiritual leaders and a lot of different people to really get a point of view on this subject matter — a lot of historians. And so we finally just put it together over a couple years.

MGS: When I was preparing for this interview I realized that the stigma that dark-skinned black women face is quite old . . .

BD: It’s also global. And I found something that’s interesting: skin bleach is one of the (best)-selling cosmetics in the world. It’s a multi-billion dollar business. In India for example, Indian men use skin bleach because they want to be lighter because any darker-skinned Indian man is considered a field worker. A lighter-skinned Indian man is considered an office worker. It’s a global thing.

MGS: Right. Does that originate with slavery, do you think?

BD: I think colonialism around the world, yes, that’s one of the things, and also caste systems, etc. But I think it’s something that unfortunately still exists and is impacting our children in a very negative way.

MGS: It seems like it’s still taboo to talk about it.

BD: Well, people don’t really want to talk about it because it’s painful. And one of the biggest things to happen after we screen the film is the Q&A after — because that’s when people (in the audience) really say what they really have gone through. And their question is, “What’s next? The film is okay but what are we going to do about it?” You know?

MGS: Right. Is that important to you, to use filmmaking to educate?

BD: Sure, because, you know, I screened the film three weeks ago at a high-school in L.A. And then, after the screening, these dark-skinned little girls are crying. We asked them why. They said, “Well, nobody invited us to our senior prom because they thought we were ugly.” This happened three weeks ago.

MGS: Hopefully, your film will go a long way towards changing people’s perception of that.

BD: I hope so. We’ve got to do something about it. I appreciate your support of it because it’s more than a film. People get, you know, the fact that it has some importance.

MGS: I’m actually going to make it an extra credit assignment for my students.

BD: Great, great, great.

darkgirls Dark Girls poster

MGS: You’ve always believed that movies should educate, right? Because your first real film as a director was The Killing Floor (about Chicago’s labor wars) from 1984.

BD: Yes. That is one of my favorite films of all time that I made, The Killing Floor.

MGS: Mine too. I think that is one of the all-time great Chicago movies.

BD: Thank you so much. I really love that movie. The great Moses Gunn was in that. I love Moses Gunn.

MGS: As “Heavy,” right?

BD: (laughs) Yes!

MGS: Why is that not available on DVD?

BD: I’m not sure, you know. It was a PBS-sponsored film. I’m not quite sure why they never made a DVD of it. I would love to know the answer to that question.

MGS: So PBS owns the rights to it?

BD: Yes.

MGS: So people should petition them then if they want a DVD release. The way you recreated Chicago from 1917 to 1919 was absolutely incredible.

BD: Thank you very much. We really enjoyed it. And we enjoyed being in Chicago in that time too ’cause Harold Washington (Chicago’s first black mayor) was elected the first week that we were there. Yes — political history.

MGS: I’m sure that felt auspicious for your film.

BD: Incredible, man. Incredible.

killingfloor Damien Leake in The Killing Floor

MGS: I also wanted to ask you about Deep Cover. That’s a film I show in my Film History classes . . .

BD: Oh, really? Thank you for that.

MGS: Yeah, I show it to illustrate neo-noir. Are you a fan of the old films noir of the 40s and 50s?

BD: Yes, I am. Always have been. Always have.

MGS: And were you consciously trying to update the conventions for the 90s?

BD: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right, yes. I studied it and wanted to see how I could leverage it in some way and it was really a great experience for me. It really was.

MGS: I think the chemistry between Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum was phenomenal in that film.

BD: I agree a thousand percent. I thought they did a great job, man. They really did. Great acting.

MGS: It seems like a lot of their dialogue was improvised. Was that the case?

BD: Um, it was based on the text but, you know, I let them kind of freestyle too ’cause they were feeling each other. So I let them do what they wanted to do. We had a great writer too. Henry Bean was a great writer.

MGS: It seems like you’re working more in television these days and it seems like a lot of ambitious filmmakers think that television is the best venue for serious films. Would you agree with that?

BD: Well, I created a documentary company (Duke Media) that makes what I call “edutainment”: you can entertain people but also you can deal with social issues. And so I have a documentary company. Dark Girls is one (film), we’re bringing Yellow Gals next and What is a Man? after that. So it’s really interesting to use documentary filmmaking to make statements and also explore issues that impact our community.

MGS: What were those next two films you just named?

BD: Yellow Gals, which deals with what light-skinned women go through and then What is a Man?, which deals with manhood from the caves to the present day.

MGS: Well, I look forward to seeing them. Thank you so much, Bill.

BD: I appreciate it, man. Thank you for your support.

DeepCover Laurence Fishburne (in his last performance credited as “Larry”) basking in the red/blue color scheme of the awesome neo-noir Deep Cover.

You can learn more about Dark Girls at the official website for the film: http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com/

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

12 responses to “Filmmaker Interview: Bill Duke

  • Susan Doll

    How lucky that you got to speak with Bill Duke. I love Bill Duke. I would have asked him about acting in PREDATOR!!!!! I actually used him as one of three directors I did in an authorship class. Thanks for the head’s up about DARK GIRLS. I will definitely catch it this weekend.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I love PREDATOR but I was operating under the impression that everyone probably always asks him about it. He seemed surprised and grateful that I brought up THE KILLING FLOOR. DARK GIRLS is eye-opening and heartbreaking.

  • drew

    I’m curious as to how you conducted the interview. Did you use some kind of an audio recorder?

  • jilliemae

    I was really surprised and shocked when I read this and then saw the clip on Vimeo before the actual documentary aired. Given that I am a white woman, this has never been a concern of mine. Similarly, I have never viewed an African American person, or even a person of color, as being “less than” because of the shade of their skin, and therefore feel a little clueless and somewhat shamefully so. This is one of those documentaries that is extremely important because it discusses what makes us (people of all races) uncomfortable, and that is where the good conversations and hopefully constructive change will begin to occur.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I too found the movie shocking. One thing that was especially eye-opening for me was seeing the amount of prejudice that dark-skinned women face from within their own families. Hearing the testimony of a lot of those women was heartbreaking. It’s also interesting to note that “colorism” is a very old phenomenon. A lot of blues singers of the 20s and 30s noted a preference for “high yellow” and “fair brown” (as opposed to “black-skinned”) women. Even Blind Willie McTell (who couldn’t see!) expressed a preference for lighter-skinned women.

      Kudos to Bill Duke for making the film. He has clearly succeeded in his goal of generating a discussion of the topic.

      • jilliemae

        The timing of this documentary is weirdly appropriate as well, given the Paula Deen scandal and past and present employees coming out and saying that she only put white and light-skinned people of color at the front of the house, and kept darker skinned people behind the scenes.

      • michaelgloversmith

        That’s a great point: it almost feels like the filmmakers could tack that info onto the movie. Unfortunately, movies about racism are probably always going to feel weirdly relevant.

  • John Charet

    Loved your interview with actor/director Bill Duke. Dark Girls was quite a powerful documentary concerning the issue of “colorism”. Duke is almost like a journalist the way he knows about these things. I mean that story he related about those girls not getting invited to the senior prom was heartbreaking. I also find it interesting that you made viewing the documentary Dark Girls as extra credit for your film history class. I actually think it was refreshing of you not to bring up Predator because lets face it, whenever Duke is interviewed, he probably is asked about it a lot as you mentioned in your reply to Susan Doll. I bet Bill Duke was thrilled that this interview was more about his work as a director than it was about Predator or his other acting jobs. I am also thrilled that Bill Duke loved being in Chicago when he was directing The Killing Job and he is right Harold Washington was Chicago’s first black mayor. What makes that even more fascinating is that Duke was in the city on the first week when Washington was elected. Also great to see that he is a fan of film noir. Interesting to see If he loved any of the American noir by the German born Fritz Lang. I had no idea that their was some freestyle dialogue in Deep Cover. I also agree with you that nowadays it seems like he directs more documentaries for television through the company he has entitled “Duke Media”. All in all, great interview. Keep up the great work:)

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  • An African-American Cinema Primer | White City Cinema

    […] Bill Duke is best known for his work as a character actor (with scene-stealing cameos and supporting roles in everything from Predator to Menace II Society) but he’s also carved out a distinguished if regrettably little-known parallel career as a film director. This invisibility is in part because, like Charles Burnett, his filmography spans the disparate worlds of Hollywood, independent and made-for-television movies; even many of the people who admire this auteur’s work are unaware that what they are fans of are actually “Bill Duke films.” My favorite of his movies are the 1992 neo-noir Deep Cover and the 1984 T.V. film The Killing Floor, which tells the true story of the migration of one black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century. Upon arrival in the Second City he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious race riots of 1919. This is a terrific history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. Duke identified it as one of his own favorite movies when I interviewed him in 2013. […]

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