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Bill Duke Reflects On Successful Career

Before Spike Lee and Ryan Coogler, there was Bill Duke. With a successful career that spans over 30 years, the 6’4 powerhouse has acted in and directed an array of television shows, films and documentaries.

Classic movies, such as Menace II Society and Car Wash, are where you can find the thespian showing off his acting chops. And when you watch Sister Act 2 and Dark Girls, know that Mr. Duke was behind the camera leading the way.

His résumé is indeed extensive and worthy of highlighting, and TV One is doing just that. His episode of Unsung Hollywood premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m./9 p.m. CST. In the meantime, check out what the legend had to say about being featured on the series, using his talents to highlight social issues and cherishing some of the best advice he’s received over the years.

JET: What was your reaction when you received the call from TV One that they wanted to feature you in its Unsung series?

Bill Duke: Well, first I was surprised, but I was also grateful for the way in which they did it. I give my compliments to the producer. It was very kind and also very thorough. They really wanted to know and understand what it is that I went through as a human being and as a professional in this business. It was a very positive experience. The entire experience was awesome.

JET: What can we expect when we watch your episode?

BD: I haven’t seen it, but I tried to give insight into my life not as a perfect person, but as a person who’s tried his best. In spite of all the obstacles that I’ve faced, I’ve tried to transcend them and be the best person I could based upon some good upbringing by some good people – my mother and father and other relatives around me.

JET: I’d say say you’ve done a tremendous job. With notable films such as Not Easily Broken and A Rage in Harlem under your directing belt, do you have a favorite?

BD: Wow! To be very honest with you…that’s tough. I did a film called Hoodlum with Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Laurence Fishbourne that I’m very proud of to this day. I really enjoyed it. I worked again with Laurence Fishbourne in a film called Deep Cover, which is kind of a cult classic, which I really, really enjoyed working on. Sister Act 2 with Whoopi Goldberg, who is one of the funniest people in the world, was just a wonderful set and place to be on with her. There are just a lot of different films that I’ve directed where I’ve really enjoyed the actors and enjoyed the experience, and I hope to do more.

JET: You started out acting. Is that correct?

BD: No, I started out as a writer. I was a very tall and dark kid, and I didn’t have many friends. So I expressed my feelings by writing them down just as ideas and they became poems. And after poems they became scripts. And so I started as a writer actually and transferred to directing and acting a little bit. I went to Boston University and I studied acting and directing both.

JET: Do you have a preference? Acting, directing or writing?

BD: That’s a very good question. I would say honestly speaking, directing gives me the ability to talk about things and discuss things. I just joined a documentary company. You know there are issues that we face in our communities that I think should be addressed. The documentaries are a really good way of addressing them, and directing documentaries is very important for me and my company. We call it “edutainment.” In other words, you can really entertain people, but at the same time give them things to think about that may give them alternate ways of thinking about what they’re doing or what’s happening in our society. Writing and acting are my passion, but right now, my focus is directing.

JET: What are some topics that you hope to shed some light on with directing?

BD: Oh, there are numerous. We just made a three-picture deal with Oprah Winfrey based on my work from Dark Girls. So we’ve been doing Light GirlsWhat is a Man and What is a Woman with OWN. What is a Man deals with the evolution of manhood from the cave to the present day. Our boys need to establish who they are as men. As for What is a Woman, what is it about her self-esteem that influences her actions? Those are the kinds of things we want to examine. We’re now in the process of shooting Light Girls, which is a continuation of that topic of colorism. We just made an incredible discovery in terms of the figures on skin bleaching globally. By 2018, it will be a $20 billion business, but White females are darkening their skin at the same time. It’s interesting how people can be sometimes. I screened Dark Girls in Harlem at the Apollo Theater a couple of years ago. During the Q&A, this older black woman asked, “Mr. Duke, I enjoyed your film, but why do insist on airing our dirty laundry?” I said to her, “Ma’am, with all due respect, because it’s stinking up the house.” A lot of people in the community do not want these issues raised. I think you have to take a chance in what we’re doing with our films.

JET: Speaking of films, there were several movies that told our stories last year, but some felt negatively about our tough past being revisited again and again. How do you feel about the way African Americans were portrayed?

BD: What we don’t understand is if we don’t understand our past, we don’t learn the lessons from it so we can impact our future. There are other communities, like the Jewish community, that continuously remind us of their Holocaust. They want their children to understand the lives that were paid so they could be here today. We erase our history as though it has no significance. What slaves went through shows the endurance of us as a species. I think they’re not the only stories that should be told about us, but they’re significant films that should remind us of who we have been, how we have gotten here and the significance of our history. I am not offended by those films at all.

JET: Do you think we can keep the momentum going in 2014?

BD: My honest prayer is that this was not just one of those times of quadrennial celebrations of Black film or every seven or eight or nine years. I hope it’s a continuation and growth of our participation in the film community. I’m hoping that we’ll see nine or 10 films next year. That’s my prayer.

JET: What future projects can we look forward to seeing from you?

BD: There are two projects that I’m working on right now. One is called Time from Mercy. It’s kind of a dramatic mystery series. The second project I’m working on is with Garrett Morris. He and I are executive producing an online project called True That. It’s a mix of The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. It’ll be up in the next three to four months. Also, we just made a deal with Harper Collins to do a Dark Girls book. We want young girls of the future that have a dark complexion to understand that no matter what they’re called or how they’re disrespected, they can have a book to see people who look like them, who are gorgeous, successful and powerful in this world, that did not let the torture they went through stop them. That comes out November 4.

JET: Throughout your career, what’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

BD: Let me give you some things from the wisest people I’ve read and known have given me. I’ll give you three quotes. The first one is by Winston Churchill: “True power is an individual’s ability to move from failure to failure with no loss in enthusiasm.” The second quote is anonymous: “Aspire to inspire before you expire.” The third quote is also anonymous: “In your lifetime, you’ll never see a smaller package than a person wrapped up in themselves.” Those quotes have impacted my life greatly.

About Najja Parker

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Najja Parker is a writer and editor with experience in multimedia journalism. Her work has been featured in various publications, such as SecondCityStyle.com and ChicagoTalks.org. She holds a BA in English and Theater from Spelman College and an MA in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago. When she’s not writing, you can find her playing in nail polish, creating some of the trendiest and coolest nail art designs. Follow her at @NajjaNotes.