Bill Duke Interview
by DarkMark Twain
INTERVIEW : Bill Duke
The withering stare. The impenetrable scowl. For years, Bill Duke the Actor has been in the business of menacing. But for Bill Duke the Author, Bill Duke the Zen master, and Bill Duke the Director, it' just business as usual.
What expectations do you have of an African American filmmaker? I've heard many responses to that question : they have to promote a positive Black image, give inspiration, install a sense of history, pride, and humor; they must expose injustice, obtain great actors, they must have a redemptive message, good music, authentic settings and realistic dialogue.
All of these virtues and more, exist in the works of Bill Duke.
At this point, Mr. Duke may be best known for his acting credits. He has appeared in such box office hits as 'Commando', 'American Gigolo', 'Bird on a Wire', ''Menace II Society', Car Wash' and on television in the critically acclaimed 'Palmerstown USA' that was created by Alex Haley. His most famous role is probably the ever-shaving Special Forces member in the original 'Predator' movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Success in acting led to directing opportunities. Movies such as 'A Rage in Harlem', 'The Cemetery Club', 'Sister Act II : Back in the Habit', and the politically charged 'Deep Cover' and 'The Boy Who Painted Christ Black' have already become classic American cinema fare and favorites in the 'hood. Each film includes the elements of action, comedy and insight that sets his projects apart from other artists.
His newest release was called 'Hoodlum' starring Laurence Fishburne, Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson and Andy Garcia. The story is about the confrontations between mobsters Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz and African American gangster, Bumpy Johnson. The movie is set in 1930's Harlem and revolves around a Blackman who decides to change his selfish ways and risk everything, to save his community from outside exploitation. It's strong message and compelling storyline is typical of all Bill Duke projects.
Mr. Duke has on his wide range of interests that occupy his none working hours. He writes poetry, studies Martial Arts, and teaches transcendental meditation and Yoga. Not only is he looking for new talent, but he is also searching for new technologies to help him express his ideas.
He has developed a website for the 'Hoodlum' movie that won website of the month for July 1997. It has interactive features that gives background information about the history of the film's characters, settings used, actors involved and even live-action footage from the movie itself.
More traditional forms of communication are used by this highly driven man. His first book is called 'Black Light : The African American Hero'. His newest, 'The Journey', is anartistic adventure into self discovery.
Mr. Duke can currently be seen in the Mel Gibson blockbuster, 'Payback'. Again playing the villian, he spices up the film with his portrayal of a bad cop.
His work for profit is equally matched by his work for charity. He has been involved with organizations from New York to Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted at his office at MGM/UA Plaza in Santa Monica. I present a complex, insightful, genius with a huge heart. The Deep Mr. Bill Duke. What an African American filmmaker should be.
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Press: You have so many projects going on at the same time; films, acting, books, theater, internet. How do you find time?
Bill Duke: I don't really know, but thank God I do. I started out as a writer actually Matter of fact, I have a book coming out next month, it's called the 'Journey'. It's an inspirational book on human healing. There is so much emphasis on the diversity of people, I wanted to point out the commonalties we all have. We are all going through life's journey together. The website is an important thing to do. We are moving from the industrial age, to the information age, we must be prepared to take advantage of it. I think this new technology is going to have an increasing impact upon the world's economy and the world's workplace. I just wanna be prepared for that shift and not be left behind. I think we should all be very much aware of the applications of that.
P: The Black community seems to be getting left behind in this information age.
BD: That's no good. I can't tell you how bad that is. That's real bad. A gap between the information rich and the information poor is something that we don't even want to think about. Many of the things that are happening in our community such as AIDS being the number one killer of young black women for 14 to 22 years old, and the increasing numbers of our incarcerated young men. We don't want to face the implications of the information age without being prepared for it. It is incumbent upon each of us in the media ... yourself as a writer, myself as a film director or teachers or parents, to really start telling our young people, what this is really about. Its happening very quietly. No one is shouting about this. The possible implications could be devastating.
P: By development of your website, I think it makes it easier for the Black population to relate to computers and the information age.
BD: We're trying, but as you say, yes its important to sound the alarm, for Black people to understand that this is something they must seek.
P: What people living or dead have inspired you?
BD: My father is dead, my mother is living, Uncle Albert, Uncle Charles, Uncle Howard Lee, Aunt Kate. Mrs. Walker, a female white teacher who entered my poems in a poetry contest and I won. Dr. James Hall, who when I was about to drop out of Boston University, paid my full tuition with a check from his won personal bank account. Brock Peters, Sidney Poitier, who when I saw them on screen I said, "Maybe I can do that." There have been so many people who have been so inspirational to my life.
P: I think it's good for our young brothers to hear that you first listed your family as the most inspirational to you. Not Jordan, Shaq etc.
BD: Yeah, that's because they are my real life heroes. They are the ones who got up everyday, and went to work in jobs that they did not necessarily want to be on, so that I didn't have to do that. They provided for me. That is from the fact that they would work 2 or 3 jobs, in the snow. Back in those days there was something called Generational Responsibility. You weren't doing it for yourself, you were doing it so that your kids would have better lives. Many people have lost that. They don't have any responsibility to their children, many are children themselves and that's a shame. I'd like it to be known that there were times when there was a generation of Black folks, who actually took the responsibility of a future generation on their shoulders and did great things in their time. Dr. King and Malcolm X and my parents, many of these people whose shoulders we are standing on. A lot of those shoulders are pretty bloody. We give them no recognition, no respect and we think that it's "our world" and we just don't understand that we need a sense of tradition, heritage, and understanding of the importance of our history. I talk about it all the time, because I think it is that important.
P: In an earlier Player's interview you had mentioned that Black people once booed you because you said "white racism is irrelevant. Its up to us to do ... or not do." Could you explain the reaction.
BD: I think that if it is racism or any kind of injustice that you may talk about, if you expect a solution to the problem to come from the thing that you feel is responsible for the problem, then you empower that entity, and disempower yourself. It's almost like we're waiting for someone to come and save us. All of those people have come. Jesus, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, they've all come. Now it's incumbent on us to take advantage of the wisdom and the entrees into the system that they've provided, and to utilize those to our own benefit.
I've lived in NYC for most of my life, one thing about NYC (you could be) 5 blocks from St. Vincent Hospital minding your own biz, not hurting anybody, somebody comes up behind you, hits you the back of your head, with a lead pipe, you fall down in the gutter. I would not wait for somebody to come & put a hand down and say " hey man, somebody did you wrong man. You was just minding your own business & somebody hit you in the back of your head, let me take you over to St. Vincents." My suggestion is, no matter how you got down there in that gutter, if you really want to 'live', I suggest you get your butt up, walk to St Vincents, go to the Emergency Room. If someone sees you walking, they say "Hey man, your head is bleeding, let me help you up the steps" or something. They don't have much empathy for you lying down in the gutter, see. What they respect is your movement, understand? So I'm not saying that racism doesn't exist and it's not hard work, it is hard work. I face it everyday in this industry. These things are not to be used as excuses for not living up to your full human potential. If we are sending these signals to our children, we are doing them a disservice. If we challenge them to be the best that they can, in spite of every obstacle that they face, and demand ... (pause), you see, in my household, these thoughts were not allowed. If I came home and said, "well you know, I got a D because I'm Black," that would be an invitation to a whipping. That meant that you wanted to get a beating that day.
P: Ha ha, just like signing up for one huh? Ha ha.
BD: Yeah. Ha ha ha, signing up for a beating that day. You know what I'm saying? Yep, if you got a C or a D it's because you're not studying. So we need to take away all those privileges that you've had, because obviously, you're too busy and ain't got no time, so we'll make more time. Ha ha. That's how we are living.
P: Check that. The humor in your films is crazy funny. One part that kills me is the running joke about Forest Whitaker's momma in 'A Rage in Harlem', ha ha ha.
BD: Ha ha ha. Yeah, one of my favorites.
P: What is your comic influence?
BD: Oh, my mother and father were just funny people for real. My uncles and stuff, man. In the old days before TV, late 40's, we used do something that a lot of Black families did when the Joe Louis fight came on the radio. Everyone would come over to someone's house and bring a potluck supper. We'd have this big meal and eat till you're stuffed to death, then you come into this one room and the radio was there, a big Philco. Joe Louis was like a God, like a God. He represented all of the manhood that Black men could not express because segregation and racism was still very prevalent at the time, he was a true hero. When he got hit, all the men in the room went, "OWWWW", like they could feel the punch. Then when he would knock somebody out, they'd leap into the air and scream "Yeah, That's my boy". After the fight was over, they would talk, and all of these wonderful personalities would come out. Like, "Joe should've hit him like that in the eleventh round ... I would've hit him with the left hook ... Aw fool, you can't hit nobody". And you would see these men and women blossom, you know? These were working folks, third grade education, but they had a street knowledge, wisdom, a sense of humor, and the ability to turn pain into... I don't know. They make us look like punks. They could take adversities, which we can't even fathom. I'll tell your a true story about a friend of mine's father. He and his father never got along. He never liked his father because he was never there for him
One day his father was very sick, thought he was gonna die, his father was an alcoholic. His father started crying and it was the 1st time that they really had a conversation. My friend said " I've always hated you so much because you never talk to me. You never express yourself."
Father says, "I'll tell you this one thing. I am not gonna change, I'm not gonna talk to you after this, but I am gonna tell you this one time, this one thing." "When you were a child, we were sharecroppers down South. A white man named Old Joe used to own the farm. Your mother, 3 kids, you were one of them, and me, used to live in this sharecroppers house. Every Saturday night, Old Joe used to come to the cabin. I'd be sitting on the front porch, Old Joe would come up, pat me on the shoulder 3 times ... tap, tap, tap, ... "How you doing, boy?" Then he'd pass me and go into the house. He would have sex with your mother, for round an hour. I'd sit on the porch, I'd listen to that. When the hour was up, he'd come back out, pat me on the shoulder, ... tap, tap, tap ... "See you next Saturday, boy" then leave. After this, I'd go inside, and I would hold your mother, clean her up, and she'd cry for a day or two. That went on for a long time. One day I just couldn't stand it no more. I told your mother "I'm gonna go up and kill Old Joe." Your mother took the gun out of my hand, pleaded with me not go, but I went up there without the gun. I said to him, " Old Joe, you've been doing this for the last year or so, I can't take it no more, I want to kill you." I told Old Joe everything I felt Old Joe didn't blink. When I was done he said " Boy, I'm gonna give you a choice. Boy, you can have your life, or you can have your self respect ... but you CAN'T HAVE BOTH.
"And son, I've been drinking ever since." As I walked back to the house, Old Joe said, "You know boy, you made a wise choice, you got them babies to raise." After that day, his father went back into the same cocoon, continued drinking. But he said after that day, it wasn't necessary for his father to talk to him. See what I'm saying, they make us look like punks. I would have been dead, I would not have had the ... (deep breath) ... whatever. My father used to tell me they used to go to lunch counters down in the South, it'd be raining outside. White folks would be inside eating lunch. Blacks would have to stay outside in the rain and eat. Sandwich would get wet and soggy and stuff. [shakes head in disbelief] These people had pride, dignity, held their heads up, raised some kids with self respect and self regard. They went to work, went to church every Sunday. That takes something, you know?
P: Yes, it does.
BD: It takes something don't it? I give them ... I give them the most ... (clears throat) ... I can't even express it. So we could be here. And what did they get? Hit in the head, disrespected ... by their own kids even. What did they get?
P: And this generation.
BD: It's just killing itself. This generation is so disappointing. Ah man, I don't think it's their fault, it's our fault. We failed them. Integration was equally one of the best things to happen to us, and one of the worst things to ever happen to us, in terms of the infrastructure of our economy and education. On my block when I was a kid you aspired to be like the people in your neighborhood. Now, what?
P: Families are in such bad shape today. How do we rebuild that?
BD: Well, I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that if each of us doesn't take it upon ourselves, whenever we can, to make some changes, it's gonna continue to go down, fast.
P: Do you think your background in Eastern Religion, Martial Arts and meditation have helped you handle show biz and life in general?
BD: No doubt about it. Transcendental meditation saved my life. Not only did it save my physical life but also my spiritual and emotional life. Yoga and Martial Arts taught me discipline.
P: You had mentioned that you enjoyed Martial Arts, what particular branch?
BD: Tai Chi, and also Chi Gong. It's less like martial arts and more like a medicinal form of healing. A wonderful way of maintaining that Chi energy, feeling it flow through the body.
P: Do you think you might do a Martial Arts movie?
BD: I would only make a Martial Arts movie if it was totally respectful of the System itself. All that kicking, screaming etc. is fighting, not Martial Arts. Martial Arts is about discipline. Not only physical discipline, but emotional, spiritual discipline. I'd love to make a movie about that. Martial Arts has nothing to do with beating up people. My first instructor said to me "Bill, if someone confronts you, the first thing I want you to do is to try to come to some kind of verbal understanding. If you can not come to a verbal understanding, then I want you to offer the person the thing they want; whether it's and apology, a wallet, a jacket, whatever you have, give it to them. If they will not take what you are giving, I want you to run. But, if they catch you...hahaha...if they catch you....you must make sure, that they never chase you again!": That, to me, is the core of Martial Arts.
P: Most of your films have a multi-cultral cast, why is that important ?
BD: I don't want my films to be void of the reality of our existence. That's why I have an aversion to the term 'Black Filmmaker'. I never heard Woody Allen referred to as a wonderful 'Jewish' filmmaker, or Martin Scorese or Francis Ford Coppola refered to as wonderful 'Italian' filmmakers. Their ethnicity has nothing to do with it. They are making films about their reality and their vision of the world as they see it. Now what I'm saying is that we should be allowed to do the same things.
P: I heard that!
BD: The world is not as simple as black and white. The world is as complex as the people who live in it. Those people are multi-faceted. We all bump up against one another in life. Some of it hurts and some of it is soothing, and that's what I want to talk about, the mix of life.
P: Does the movie "Hoodlum" have an underlying message?
BD: It's totally about ... Redemption. Redemption and the ignobling of the human spirit. "Hoodlum" is about what happens to a person who starts out to do the right thing, then gets a lot of power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. You know, when you leave home and get lost, it ain't easy getting back.
P: "Deep Cover" is about the so called 'War on Drugs'. Do you see parallels with the prohibition days?
BD: Well, I think it's totally ridiculous, the amount of money that we spend on this so called 'War on Drugs'. And not making any headway of any kind, people are taking more drugs now than ever in the history of this country. The amount of energy, resources, manpower, that we are putting into this so-called 'War on Drugs'.... I don't get it. "Deep Cover" was made because they were blaming young Black and Hispanic kids for the drugs in this country. I said "get out of here!" So I broke down the infrastructure in an entertaining way because I wanted people to see ... Naw, naw it ain't these little mules, here's (high level businessmen and politicians involvement) what's happening. We interviewed the real folks.
P: Oh really?
BD: Oh yeah. It was based on a real person, see what I'm saying. This isn't fiction, this is real. So we wanted to show how it really went. That's one of my favorite pieces. It's really a morality picture. I didn't want to make a film about drugs, it's about ethical behavior.
P: How would you tell a person just starting out now to proceed in the movie industry?
BD: By any means necessary. My preferred way is academically. Go to a school and learn the art of filmmaking. What an educational environment provides you with is an opportunity to fail. You come to Hollywood, it ain't like that, ha ha ha. If you're not that fortunate to go to school, then get a video camera, write a script, and make movies. Nothing should stop you, nothing!
P: Describe the sacrifices you had to make to get where you are today?
BD: While people are out partying, I'm at home reading scripts, breaking them down, doing some writing. A lot of people in this town think I'm snobby or uppity but I'm not. I like work. In the long run, I hope it all pays off.
P: Well I speak for all the brothers out there when I say, thank you for your struggles. We appreciate your inspiration. Peace.