Good Is Not Good Enough, Interview With Harlem Fave Bill Duke

By Robert Walker

Bill Duke‘s career spans almost 50 years, making him a Hollywood icon as both an actor and director. His passion for the Arts has not waned over the years, and he is determined to pass the torch on to our youth to keep the Arts alive.

He is someone who has carved out a name for being a man of action with great humanity and humility. And if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you only have to see his performances both in front of the camera and behind the camera, to realize the truth of it.

 

As a hard-nosed Green Beret in the movie, ‘Predator’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Duke delivers one of the more layered characterizations in the ensemble cast about a soldier in a no-win situation with an enemy not easily seen. And who can forget the Duke directed, ‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’ that many consider to be one of Whoopi Goldberg’s best films for her very funny portrayal of Sister Mary Clarence in a story with a heartfelt message.

With over 67 films and television credits in his career as an actor, Bill’s 6-foot 5-inch frame and trademark intense, and fearless glare, makes him one of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors.

What may not be as readily recognizable to many is Bill Duke‘s success as a director with over 34 films and numerous directed television series episodes, the thing that makes Bill different from many other actors who also direct, is his versatility and ability to direct any genre of film.

From comedies, dramas and action films, Bill Duke has done them all with great success. Films like ‘A Rage In Harlem‘, ‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’, ‘Hoodlum,’ ‘Deep Cover’, ‘Action Jackson’, ‘Not Easily Broken’, to name a few, have distinguished Duke as a “renaissance” director.

Because of Duke’s body of work, the Directors Guild of America bestowed their Lifetime Achievement Tribute award to him, putting Bill Duke in the class of such legendary directors as Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg.

For Bill Duke personally, his passion as a director is always striving to be like his mentors, Michael Shultz, and Gordon Parks, who paved the way for African Americans in cinema. This has been his ongoing quest since the 1970’s.

Bill is the founder and CEO of the Duke Media Foundation, formerly Yagya Productions, which has been successfully producing film and television for over 30 years.

I was able to sit down with him to discuss his career and legacy.

Here’s the Q&A with Bill Duke.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with our readers about your career Bill.

Rober Walker: Your acting career spans some 40 years now and you have become an iconic figure in the film industry. When did you first come to Hollywood to work as an actor and what was your first film?

Bill Duke: My first feature was ‘Car Wash’, in 1976. Prior to that, I had done some episode appearances on television series ‘ABC After School Specials’, ‘On The Rocks’, and ‘Kojak’ with Telly Savalas.

RW: I know that you are from Poughkeepsie, New York, which is upstate from NYC. How did you catch the “acting bug” and at what age were you when that happened?

BD: Well, I was in elementary school when I took a speech and drama class. I was a bit awkward socially with the other kids but found something I never felt before in that class, and that’s when I caught the acting bug.

But, my parents didn’t think the acting was going to make me any money. Doctors make money, and that’s what they encouraged me to pursue by the time it came to go to college.

It was while attending Boston University, where my passion for the Arts was furthered by writers like Chaucer, author of “The Canterbury Tales”, and Andrew Hiss. I would go on to attend NYU, not having a plan for my calling in the Arts yet, I found myself taking ballet lessons. At six foot five inches tall, dancing in those tights, well – that just wasn’t a good look for me.

It was Lloyd Richards, a great director, who really encouraged me to pursue acting as a professional, and I am indebted to him to this day. I would go on to work with famed director/producer, Michael Schultz, who would also encourage me to stay in New York and act. Both men really shaped me.

RW: You have worked with so many wonderful actors and directors over the years Bill, but is there one actor and one actress, on your “bucket list” of actors, to do a film with?

BD: Wow – so many I can think of (Bill pauses for a while), but you know – I’d have to say, Meryl Streep is perhaps an actress I’d most like to direct or act in a film with. Denzel Washington, Sam Jackson, and Jeffrey Wright, whom I feel is just a phenomenal actor, all would be on my short list.

RW: I recently did an article about how this electronic age we now live in has changed much of how Hollywood does business where people with no formal acting training can post content (Vlogs, Web series, etc.) on the internet and become “reality stars”. As a trained Tisch School actor, how do you relate to this new age of reality TV and Internet posts? And, how has it affected how you now operate as a working actor and director or has it at all?

BD: Well, it is a wonderful thing that technology now allows people to promote themselves and find an audience, and of course, if you find enough audience in terms of numbers, you can create your own commercial appeal and success. But, what I am afraid has happened with this technology is, the craft is lacking in many.

The skills one acquires from training in acting classes, and more training in improv groups, or in theater, no longer seems as important. And, as a director certainly, you see the difference.

RW: In speaking about the new age of the film industry, I know that you recently completed work on a film that was almost entirely shot using I-Phones. How different was that for you as an actor, and do you see this as a near future trend in filmmaking?

BD: The film is ‘Unsane’ that was shot by famed director, Steven Soderbergh, and almost entirely shot using I-Phone 7 plus phones. If you know anything about Soderbergh’s work, as a cinemaphotographer himself, he loves to experiment using new technologies.

The film uses all natural light, and of course, you don’t have the production time set-ups with lighting and mikes. Makes for a faster pace in the filmmaking process to be sure. But, I still love the full process of filmmaking through with film crews intact.

Guess I am a little old school. But, I do recognize and acknowledge the evolution of filmmaking. As for it becoming a trend, I know there are several films already touted to be made using phone camera tech. We’ll see.

RW: Many fans of films know of your work in such films as ‘Predator’ and ‘Commando’, ‘Action Jackson’, and ‘Exit Wounds’, to name a few. But, one of my favorite movies of all time is Whoopi Goldberg’s hit comedy, ‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’, for which you directed. What was it like working with Whoopi Goldberg and Lauryn Hill, and are people surprised that you, mostly known for playing in action and crime dramas, did a movie with big laughs and a heartfelt message?

BD: Whoopi and Lauryn, and the entire cast, were delightful to work with. I actually did a film for Disney prior to the Sister Act 2 film called, ‘Cemetery Club’ with Ellen Burstyn, Diane Ladd and Olympia Dukakis. The film was well received and full of Jewish culture humor. I think that film dispelled any preconceived ideas about who I might be as a director (he says with a tongue in cheek smile).

RW: The movie, ‘Black Panther’ was a huge commercial and critical success in 2018, becoming one of the most profitable films in film history, and it stirred up a movement about what many are calling, “Afro-Futurism”. How do you see the success of that film in terms of the financing of future films featuring principle black casts, writers, directors and producers? Do you feel a door has opened?

BD: ‘Black Panther’ is phenomenally successful, and it certainly doesn’t surprise any of us who have worked in this industry for so long, as to what we as African Americans are capable of if given the top dollars to compete.

I think, however, when you look at the business of movie making, in terms of ratios of how many African Americans actually sit in the decision-making areas of greenlighting films, from my perspective, it’s almost a feeling that Black Panther is more a success story for a season, rather than the opening of a door for future films led by African American crews from top to bottom.

How many Black executives run a Hollywood studio you can name? So, we remain diligent, always doing a great work. The success of ‘Black Panther’ certainly is a great start though for what could and will eventually be.

RW: You have been a tireless worker with your Duke Media Foundation in working to educate young people in film and television, and in preserving the Arts in our schools Bill. What has been your concerns about the cut-backs in funds for Arts education in schools, and how is your organization addressing these concerns?

BD: We know that children who can utilize their creativity in Arts programs are more likely to stay in school and get their education for better career opportunities and quality of life. It has been clear that the Arts, and support for the Arts, is not big on the current administration’s agenda, with less and less funding going to the arts in education across the nation, despite what the research shows.

Our passion at Duke Media Foundation is to bring in young people each year and give them an education in media and financial literacy that will give them the knowledge and confidence to create art with a great business acumen they can use in any walk of life.

RW: How can any young people interested in getting involved with your company’s projects get in touch with you, or apply?

BD: They can reach us at the Duke Media Foundation via email at info@dukemediafoundation.org and can visit our website for announcements at www.dukemediafoundation.org

RW: If you were giving the commencement speech for the graduating class of film and theater majors in 2019, what would your message be to those young people?

BD: Don’t be playing checkers in a chess game, and don’t bring a bat to play football. Know your game because having passion without a business plan is called, frustration.

RW: When it is all said and done, what would you like people to say about you as an actor, filmmaker, and as a humanitarian?

BD: That I was a great father and family man. I was someone who spent his life creating content that people could relate to and that impacted their lives.

Oh, and that I was a LeBron James fan.

RW: Thank you, Bill Duke. To say that this has been an honor for me doesn’t even describe it because you have definitely impacted my life through your artistry.

I am sure our readers feel the same way, and we look forward to many more films from you as an actor and director.

Robert Walker is an award-winning Atlanta-based writer. He has worked for the Centennial Olympic games, the NBA’s only licensed female designer of women’s sports apparel, Deborah Williams of Her Game 2, Nicole Franklin, Freda Payne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Dr. Tommie Tonea Stewart, to name a few. He has written for HubPages, Gospel Innovation, SHEENMagazine, Black Star News, HBCU Connect, and is the recipient of the Silver Award at the World Fest Film Festival, http://robertwalkerprguy.yolasite.com/

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