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Bill Duke speaks through film

Published: 
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Actor and director Bill Duke. PHOTO: BRIAN NG FATT

“Nobody is going to give you anything. If you’re serious, stop waiting to be discovered and discover yourself,” said American actor and director Bill Duke, asked what advice he would give to young filmmakers. 

 

Duke also said education was important to artistic development.

 

“The second thing I would say is study the discipline of filmmaking. Your dreams and your wishes, without infrastructure, are frustration. 

 

“Study the technical discipline of making movies and telling stories. Think about how you tell a compelling story, about how you tell a story where people care about the characters. A story to make them cry and make them think. It’s not easy to do, so I would suggest that you study the craft,” he said. 

 

Duke is in Trinidad for the T&T Film Festival, which continues until October 1. 

 

Duke, who has a more than 30-year career in television and film, led the Director’s Boot Camp workshop on September 20 and 21 that dealt with the fundamentals of directing, but also covered the importance of new media. During an interview with the T&T Guardian at the Hyatt Regency, Port-of-Spain, Duke shed some light on his message to directors. 

 

“We’re talking about the paradigm shift in our industry from film and TV to media. If you’re not aware of that shift, you’re not going to survive,” he said. 

 

Duke said new media presented an opportunity for particularly underrepresented voices in film and TV to be heard. He said when he started his career in the 1970s, there weren’t many black actors or directors to emulate in Hollywood. While there are a few more opportunities now, Duke said there is still work to do to level the playing field.

 

“I still think there’s a ceiling. I think that what new media and technology has done is break into that ceiling with a global perspective. And with film festivals like this, films that would not be seen any place else are seen here and promoted, and that’s a great opportunity.”

 

Duke’s work as a director has focused heavily on telling poignant stories from the African-American and African diaspora communities through his company Duke Media. In 2011, he teamed up with D Channsin Berry to work on the documentary Dark Girls, which dealt with issues of skin colour and discrimination in the black community. Dark Girls was recently screened on the cable channel OWN and won the Audience Choice Award at the Pan African Film Festival in 2012. 

 

The documentary focused on the negative perceptions of dark-skinned black women, but Duke shared that he too has faced discrimination as a dark-skinned black man. 

 

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a career as long as I have because I’m a big, black, dark person and they were afraid of me and assumed I was dangerous. So in order for me to get work, I had to really work hard,” said Duke, who grew up in New York.

 

“I didn’t go to my senior prom, and I was called every name that you could ever think of: darkie, blackie, tar baby sambo. I was constantly fighting, but I was big enough to beat everybody up. 

 

You have to fight for your values. My parents wanted me to stand up for myself because in those days it was brutal.” 

 

He added that the documentary was important because racial bullying continued to be a problem. 

 

“As filmmakers what we do is present content to create dialogue and hopefully that dialogue will lead in the direction of healing. That’s why it has to be discussed, because there are little girls right now who are going through that same thing and the playground is a very cruel place. This racial bullying has to stop.” 

 

To follow up Dark Girls, Duke will be working on three documentaries: Yellow Brick Road, What is a Man? and What is a Woman? Yellow Brick Road will examine the objectification of light-skinned black women, while What is a Man? and What is a Woman? look at the evolution of manhood and womanhood from sociological, psychological and anthropological points of view. 

 

On September 20, Duke did interviews for all three documentaries in and around Port-of-Spain by speaking to people in the street as well as soca artists, comedians and other local personalities. All three documentaries are expected to be finished between the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. 

 

Duke has made other films that deal with social issues affecting the African-American community such as Black Diamonds, which tells the history of African-Americans in baseball. 

 

“My company focuses on edutainment and what we mean by that is we entertain people and simultaneously present issues that are relevant globally to society—not tell people what to think, but give them the context within which to think about those issues. 

 

“If that’s activism, then yes, I’m an activist. I can’t say that all artists should be activists, but I would hope so. I think that media is a very important tool and there are some problems we’re facing that to me are urgent.” 

 

More about Duke: 

Bill Duke is an American actor and director. He has starred in such movies as Commando, Predator, Menace II Society, X-Men the Last Stand and get Rich or Die Tryin’. 

 

On television, Duke has appeared on such shows as Cold Case, The Boondocks, Battlestar Galactica and Lost. 
As a director some of his notable work includes Sister Act: Back in the Habit and the PBS documentary series Prince Among Slaves. He is the founder and CEO of Duke Media. 
Duke was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Tribute from the Directors Guild of America. He serves on the board of trustees at the American Film Institute and the California State Film Commission Board. 
Duke also mentors youth through his Duke Media Foundation.

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