Bill Duke first captured our attention on the silver screen with his 6’5” towering presence in his breakthrough feature film, Car Wash. He co-starred in the film with such veteran actors as Antonio Fargas, Ivan Dixon, and Richard Pryor. Duke’s impressive filmography as an actor includes American Gigolo, Commando, Predator, Action Jackson, Get Rich or Die Tryin,’ and X-Men: The Last Stand. He starred in the television series Palmerstown, U.S.A. in the early 80s and recently guest-starred as Agent Odell during the second season of the CW’s Black Lightning.
Duke’s directorial credits are extensive and include such features as A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover, Menace II Society, Hoodlum, Predator, and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Other directing credits include classic television gems like Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, Fame, Hill Street Blues, and Dallas. The director made attention-grabbing headlines with his 2011 controversial documentaries Dark Girls and Light Girls; both were NAACP Image Award nominees. Despite Duke’s numerous accomplishments over his 40-plus years as an actor and director, he’s most often recognized from his unforgettable role in the film Menace II Society where he uttered the iconic line: “You know you done f’d up, right?”
As the recipient of numerous awards including the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the NAACP’s Special Award for Outstanding Achievement, SCLC’s Drum Major for Justice Film Award and a Cable TV Ace Award, Duke was also appointed to the National Endowment for the Humanities by President Bill Clinton. As of late, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Tribute from the Directors Guild of America. Duke has degrees from Boston University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the American Film Institute. The seemingly tireless “godfather of African-American cinema,” continues to act, direct and at 76-years-young, shows zero signs of slowing down.
On the humanitarian front, Duke is passionate about fueling young minds with creativity, and he does this through his Duke Media Foundation, a non-profit corporation that provides inner-city youth from ages 15 to 18 with media training that runs the gamut from A to Z. The Poughkeepsie, NY native who has also directed and written plays is also proud of his literary achievement, Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on Screen and Behind the Camera.
50BOLD sat down with the iconic actor and director to discuss his stellar career and current projects.
50BOLD: You’re originally from Poughkeepsie, NY. What was it like growing up in the Duke household? How did the experience prepare you as a future actor, director, and writer?
Duke: As I stated in my autobiography, Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on Screen and Behind the Camera, my mother was from West Point, MS, and my father was from Orange, VA. I don’t think they went to high school, but they were two of the brightest people I’ve known in my life. They came from a tradition of survival. They never allowed us to make excuses for anything. If you were asked to do something, and you understood English, and it wasn’t done, there were consequences. I’ll give you an example. My parents told my sister and me to ride our bikes on the sidewalk and not on the street because of the traffic. If Ms. Johnson, our next-door neighbor, saw us riding our bikes on the streets, she would come out of her house, stand in front of our bikes, then direct us to her living room couch. She would tell us, “Don’t say a word!” Ms. Johnson would then call my father at work and say, “Bill, they’re riding their bikes on the street.” My father would respond, “I’ll be there in an hour.” That was the longest hour of our lives! My question is, “What happened to Ms. Johnson?”
50BOLD: (laughs) What did happen to Ms. Johnson? That’s funny. Yes, I read your autobiography and it was an amazing read, Mr. Duke.
Duke: Thank you.
50BOLD: After college, you began your acting career on stage in NYC. Can you describe the challenges you faced during that particular time in your life?
Duke: I’m 6’5”, bald, Black, and dark-skinned, and in those days there was not much happening for people who looked like me. I was inspired by the actor Sidney Poitier whose career was important to me. And in those days in New York City, Blacks were not doing a lot on Broadway. I had a mentor named Lloyd Richards and he was one of the first Black directors on Broadway; he directed A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Between Lloyd Richards and Sidney Poitier, they both made me believe that if I work hard enough, maybe I could accomplish something. On off-off Broadway we as Black people could create, direct, write, and perform our own plays in little theaters which was salvation! We were in control of our own resources and possibilities; this is how we got started!
50BOLD: In your autobiography you discuss how Black people are alchemists when you describe the experience of creating plays.
Duke: Yes, I think that people, particularly Black people in poverty and desperation, have one of two choices: to be destroyed by the challenges they face or to become alchemists. Jesus was the first alchemist; he turned water into wine. Black people, in the brutality and the inhumanity of slavery, transformed their pain. When they were fed the guts of pigs, they washed them and turned it into chitlins. They took the hoof of a pig and turned it into pig’s feet. We are survivors, and this is why we should never forget the history that came before us.
50BOLD: You do have an excellent point! In the beginning of your career, you appeared in a play called Slave Ship.
Duke: Slave Ship was life-changing for a couple of reasons; Gilbert Moses was the director of the play. It was a powerful experience because a boat was built that surrounded the stage, and it was held in a theater of the round. The audience surrounded this boat that was on rockers. We were in the ship like the slaves who came to these shores. The play exposed a lot of the atrocities that happened to the slaves. The play was not only a life-changing experience for me but the entire cast as well.
The only thing that surpasses Slave Ship was when I went to Ghana a few years ago and visited a slave castle. The castle was a midpoint where we were dropped off for a little while before we were taken to the Americas. In the slave castle, you can still feel an energy to this very day. There was a space in the castle that measured maybe 300 ft by 200 ft, 400 enslaved women were packed into it and held for a couple of months. There were screams of pain and desperation coming out of that castle. The most ironic thing about the castle was the floor above where the women were held captive, it actually housed a church. While the enslaved women were screaming on Sunday mornings, the slave masters were busy worshipping God directly above them. Can you even imagine? The tour guides broke everything down to us, and we were gasping. It was so very revealing.
50BOLD: Wow, that is so deep! I have no words. The slave castle will be something I’ll have to personally experience someday. Thanks, Mr. Duke.
50BOLD: Your first featured role was in the movie Car Wash. What was the experience like working on the set of the film?
Duke: Oh my God! Michael Schultz is one of the greatest directors in Hollywood, the film was his creation along with other writers. Working with Antonio Fargas, Richard Pryor, the Pointer Sisters, Danny DeVito, and Ivan Dixon was an amazing experience, a true collective family effort. The film was relevant but it had humor. It was a project that I’ll never forget. All of the people who were involved in Car Wash were wonderful. Ivan, unfortunately died at an early age, but Michael Schultz and I are still friends. Many of us who were in the film are lifelong friends.
50BOLD: Speaking of the late Ivan Dixon, my favorite moment from Car Wash was the last scene between you and Ivan when your character Abdullah attempts to rob the company. The scene was a powerful moment for me to watch as a child and today as an adult Black man, it still hits a chord. How did the scene effect you?
Duke: It really expressed my frustrations as a young Black man in those days. You’re caught between a rock and a hard place. You saw the injustices that occurred, but you didn’t know what to do. Looking back at the character of Abdullah, I can now understand why some people do stupid things like robbing stores or selling drugs; their actions come from a place of desperation. When you feel you have nothing and are hopeless, you sometimes express your frustration in irrational ways. When I see young people do things they should not be doing, I don’t condone but understand in some instances.
50BOLD: As a Black man, I want to thank you for your portrayal of Abdullah. Watching the robbery scene really captures some of the frustrations that we go through in our daily lives.
Duke: Thank you for that.
50BOLD: No, thank you! Mr. Duke, you’ve appeared in many film roles throughout your career in such classic films as American Gigolo, Commando, Predator, and Action Jackson just to name a few, but perhaps the one role that has garnered so much recognition was your appearance in the movie Menace II Society where you delivered that famous line, (“You know you done f’d up, right?”) during the interrogation scene with Tyrin Turner.
50BOLD: You describe Menace in your autobiography as “an insightful experience for me in many ways.” Why?
Duke: I love the film! The Hughes brothers are wonderful and brilliant writers and directors. I appreciate them for including me in the film. The movie is about the frustration of a community. Young Black boys are killed every single day, sometimes by each other, other times by police or others. I felt the statement made by the film was a parental lesson for not only the young man on the screen, but for the young boys watching the scene. Last year, I was in Brussels, Belgium making a film with Nicolas Cage and young kids came up to me and said, “You know you done f’d up, right?”
50BOLD: (laughs) Are you kidding?
Duke: (laughs) I swear to you that no matter where I go in the world and out of all the things I’ve accomplished, the comment I hear so very often is…“You know you done f’d up, right?” (laughs). I think the line from Menace struck a nerve with people because it’s as if their fathers are speaking to them. It’s similar to when my mother and father would ask us a question, and we didn’t tell them the total truth, they would say…“Are you finished?” They would look at us and say, “You know something, we ain’t as dumb as you look!” (laughs)
50BOLD: (laughs) It is when you put it into that perspective. What led to you to transition from acting to directing?
Duke: I use to write and direct my own plays and I loved it. I always wanted to direct a film but felt intimidated. Coming from a play, you have the stage, actors, lights, and sounds. On a movie set there are microphones, cameras, lights, trucks, and a crew, it is overwhelming! I was in a television series called Palmerstown, U.S.A. for a couple of seasons and when that went dry, I didn’t work for a couple of years. I said to myself, “Bill, you’re going to have to do something more than just act.” I applied to the American Film Institute (AFI) and got accepted. Tony Villani, who was head of AFI at the time and a great human being, taught me a lot.
Here’s the funny story, I made a film called The Hero and received an award. I tried to shop it around to studios and networks but couldn’t get a job. One day my agent called me and said, “David Jacobs, the producer of Knots Landing, wants to talk to you.” I said,“Wow!” I met with David for five minutes and said to myself, “This is not going to lead to anything.” Two days later, my agent called me and said, “David Jacobs has hired you to direct Knots Landing!” Upon hearing the news about my hire, I just went crazy, telling everyone I knew. It was incredible! On the last day of pre-production, Joe Wallenstein, another producer on Knots Landing, says to me, “Hey, Bill, we knew you were going to be a good director based on your reel!” I asked, “What reel?” He replied, “You know the reel with the other shows that you’ve done.” I said, “No, Joe, I just got out of AFI.” He tells me to wait a minute. Joe goes into David Jacobs’s office and discovered that my reel had gotten mixed up with someone else’s!
Duke: And that’s how I got my first directing job!
50BOLD: And you were one of the few Black directors in the 80s who directed prime time, nighttime soap operas like Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, and Dallas.
Duke: Yes, I was the first Black director on Dallas. Did you read in my book about the moment I went to the security gate on the day I directed my first Dallas episode?
50BOLD: (laughs) Yes, I read about the Dallas incident.
Duke: (laughs) I rolled down my car window and the security guard asked, “Who are you delivering for?” I wanted to say, “I’m about to deliver a can of whoop ass to you,” but I didn’t. I replied, “What I’m delivering is my talent as the first Black director on Dallas. Can you open the gate?” The most gratifying thing to me was the gasp that came from that security guard after my response!
50BOLD: (laughs) What do you find more challenging, acting or directing?
Duke: They both have their challenges. There are two parts to directing. The first part of directing is the creative aspect where you have to relay a vision as a director that is based upon a script. You have to translate a vision to the crew, which could consist of 100 or more people. You have to make sure you all are on the same page and moving in the same direction. The second part of directing is management. When directing, you’re managing three things: time, people, and money. No matter how creative you are, if you can’t manage time, people, and money, you don’t work. I love directing because it gives you the ability to take a vision, and then manifest it through collaboration with people.
50BOLD: You mentioned earlier that Sidney Poitier was an inspiration to you as an actor. Who was an inspiration to you as a director?
Duke: Lloyd Richards, Gordon Parks, and Frank Capra, who directed It’s a Wonderful Life and another film that I think should be remade today, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were directors who inspired me. Federico Fellini is a director whom I admire. Oscar Misheaux, the first black director, and Melvin Van Peebles, who directed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, were revolutionary directors. Melvin doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but he was an inspiration to a lot of us directors. He started with nothing. Melvin started out on Wall Street as a stockbroker. He was the only Black man ever to have two plays on Broadway at the same time. I also admire the director Michael Schultz. These directors were inspirational to me because they told stories and had what I call edutainment. They had the ability to entertain you while at the same time, handing you a piece of knowledge to think about; this is a rare talent.
50BOLD: You created the very insightful documentaries Dark Girls and Light Girls, both addressed how the issue of colorism is still so deeply rooted within our community.
Duke: (sighs) Yes, it does, sir. If you go online and look up the hashtag #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin, each group has over 350,000 members going back and forth over who’s better. It’s ridiculous! I know white females who go to tanning salons every week to darken their skin. They also crinkle their hair, get Botox on their lips and butt lifts to look more ethnic. Everybody wants to be more Black except us!
50BOLD: Yes, and not only that, I recently saw something online about how some Asians were attempting to make their hair kinky. It’s deep.
Duke: (laughs) Isn’t it? Did you know that in the late 50s and early 60s in Harlem on a Sunday morning, if you went to a Black church, you were subjected to the paper bag test? If you held your hand up against a brown paper bag that was at the church’s front door and your skin was darker than the bag, you could not enter that church.
50BOLD: I did not know about the brown paper bag test at Black churches!
Duke: That’s insane, right?
50BOLD: That is insane, and it was done not that long ago!
Duke: Not at all!
50BOLD: You also founded the Duke Media Foundation. Can you talk about your organization’s objectives?
Duke: The Duke Media Foundation is a non-profit organization that teaches inner-city youth from the ages of 15 through 18 two things. The first thing the organization teaches is media literacy. Kids learn about the jobs that will exist over the next 20 or more years in the entertainment industry. We can then steer these kids towards not only what’s in front of the camera or cell phone these days, but also what’s behind the scenes. We teach these youth about the things they need to know in order to survive in show business. Afterall, passion without a plan is called frustration.
Our foundation brings in guest speakers who are working in the industry to talk to the kids about what’s going on entertainment-wise and how it’s changing. We’ve had entertainment giants like Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, Disney, etc., and now we have Google, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, YouTube Red, etc. I just made a film with Steven Soderbergh called High Flying Bird that’s on Netflix now. He shot the entire film with five iPhone 7 Plus phones in just two weeks. If you look at the quality of the filming, you would not believe it.
The second thing our foundation teaches is financial literacy. We’re taught how to spend money but we’re not taught how to use it. We teach the students the role of the FDIC, and what’s the Federal Reserve, stock market, bonds, stocks, debt, credit, bank, interest, interest rates. What we’re trying to do is prepare these kids for success and then to leverage that success to their benefit; this is our mission.
50BOLD: Last season, you guest starred as Agent Odell on Black Lightning. What was it like to return to television as an actor?
Duke: I’m going back for the show’s third season. It’s been a wonderful experience working with the people involved in the show. It’s like a family experience: they embrace you; they support you; it’s a total collaboration. There are wonderful actors, great directors, and scripts. What I like about the show is that it’s a futuristic action hero series but at its core is a Black nuclear family; this is what I love about it! The show humanizes us as a family and as a people. The family has the same conflicts that any family would face, but they come out loving each other.
50BOLD: What’s next for Bill Duke?
Duke: I’m developing several projects, some documentaries, feature films, and online content. I want to stay relevant and it’s not easy once you get older. I have a four-part metaphor for Hollywood using my own name: 1) Who is Bill Duke? 2) Get me Bill Duke! 3) Find me a younger Bill Duke! and 4) Who is Bill Duke? (laughs)