Bill Duke prefers to put the darkness backwards, quoting an early teacher who suggested that an individual's capacity to accept the unknown requires a sense of self-belief. Duke has consistently achieved this feat throughout his 40-plus-year career.
Duke's performances in films like Predator and Menace II Society are well-known, yet few recognize his lasting impact behind the camera during the 1990s, when he took center stage for a number of significant and lasting works, from A Rage in Harlem to Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, which is a classic example of how Duke helped redefine what a Black film might be.
In discussions about the most important Black auteurs from the 1980s, he is often overlooked alongside Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes brothers, perhaps because he belongs to a particular era? His film acting career started with Car Wash, became known as the L.A. Rebellion, during which he directed scenes of Dallas (making him the first African American filmmaker to do so) and Falcon Crest; the height of his directorial feature run occurred during the Black New Wave of the 1990s, when he
Duke told IndieWire during a recent video call from his Los Angeles residence that you were expected to only do black-oriented projects in those days. I wanted to go out [of] that mold.
Duke was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of working-class parents who were initially opposed to his chosen profession. Their reticence changed when they saw him play Abdullah, a Black-Muslim revolutionary working in the titular business of director Michael Schultzs Car Wash. Abdullah was a proud Black man. I think my parents understood that I was a serious actor and that I was serious about my craft.
Duke, who had previously studied at NYU, applied to the American Film Institute. By the early 1980s, Duke was directed by a lot of well-known films, including Knots Landing, Dallas, and the soap opera Falcon Crest. A teamster once called Duke a n****r while returning to his trailer, only for him to repeat the slur once more.
A kitchen clatter interrupted a shooting on the set of Falcon Crest, and the First AD denied Dukes request to quiet the clatter, instead instructing Duke to do it himself.
Im usually fairly calm, although I've experienced that sort of thing a number of times. So I charged towards Duke. Knowing the potentially career-altering consequences of such a situation on set, lead actress Jane Wyman grabbed Duke by the arm to deter him.
Duke praises his supporters for their contributions. He praises Oscar Micheaux, who taught him storytelling, and Sidney Poitier, who inspired him to become one of America's few Black movie stars. When Sidney Poitier appeared on the screen, we felt that we had worth, according to Duke.
It's why his surprise dinner with Poitier at a Beverly Hills restaurant means so much to him. I was with a young lady attempting to impress her. Poitier walks in and says,Good to see you. Come here. I gotta talk to you, Duke recalls. When the young actor explained to Poitier that he was having lunch, Poitier said, "I guess you didn't hear me."
I sat with Duke for 15 minutes, then got up from the table, said the young lady I was attempting to impress. I'll never forget that moment, Duke said. During their conversation, Poitier asked Duke for advice on how to deal with the prejudice he was experiencing.
Duke made the leap to direct films with The Killing Floor, which chronicles an asexual Chicago meatpacking union fight for their labor rights, in the 1990s. For example, the film emphasizes the ways that commerce can create a wedge between Black and white people, and the necessity of forming multicultural communities.
In Dukes 1992 neo-noir classic, Deep Cover, these piercing themes were further developed in his second film, A Rage in Harlem, which stars Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, and Robin Givens.
Deep Cover follows DEA agent Steven Russell (Laurence Fishburne) as he goes undercover in the Los Angeles drug scene in hopes of ending the crack epidemic. Russell develops a quick friendship with David Jason, a Jewish lawyer for the cartels who is attempting to break out on his own by selling a synthetic medicine that he believes will outlive the crack epidemic. As Steven enters the underworld, Steven sees the systematic failings that lead to his own demise, ultimately losing his own identity.
Deep Cover is still forward-thinking in terms of subverting other bi-racial male pairings such as The Defiant Ones and the Lethal Weapon series, which just used their characters as paths to racial harmony. In the aftermath of the brutal assault that Rodney King received from the Los Angeles Police Department, Duke felt that this would have been low-hanging fruit.
Steven and David are flawed and fully realized persons navigating a varied and sprawling cityscape. Duke and DP Bojan Bazelli used red and green lighting to highlight the danger and greed that respectively defined these individuals. Deep Cover explores justice and corruption, outlaw and informant, cop and criminal, black and white.
Fishburne's unflinching performance is another reason why Deep Cover so successful. Duke and the actor he calls Fish collaborated on bringing Russell to screen through table-readings to decide what they wanted this character to be. Theyre not actors. They are actually surrendering to the person they are portraying when Fish comes to the set.
Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis, and Danny Aiello play widowed spouses who bond through loss, heartbreak, and late-blooming love, rather than using the wealth he earned from directorial working on Deep Cover to weather the storm of visceral urban cinema (and perhaps get much more recognition) in The Cemetery Club.
Duke decided to take the initiative in order to break out of the box felt by other African American filmmakers. During the shoot and the press tour, the director was bombarded with questions why he, a Black man, chose to direct The Color Purple. Those same writers would reply, That's different.
What is most troubling for the filmmaker is how unconsciously these minor incidents develop. Duke once claimed that it was planned. But it's programmed. They're not attempting to despise you or anything, but they just feel.
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, released in 1993, was both Dukes biggest box office success (grossing $125 million worldwide), and his greatest critical flop (it currently has a 19 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
It's still confusing how a sequel that had so much going for it was so easily dismissed. The first installment was an undisputed record-breaking smash hit, earning $231.6 million against a $31 million budget. And its star, Whoopi Goldberg, who then returned to reprise her role while the original was still fresh in people's minds? Why did it not gain traction with critics?
Back in the Habit, which was aptly titled, was different from its predecessor in several ways: It was not a story about a Black woman saving white nuns, but rather a story about a multiracial, mostly Black student choir that was saved from being closed at a time when film budgets were seldom afforded to Black filmmakers (Sister Act), which was directed by the white Emile Ardolino).
Lauryn Hill gave a sensational performance prior to her Fugees popularity, playing a talented teenager who dreams of becoming a professional singer are smothered by her working-class mother (Sheryl Lee Ralph). From the moment he saw Hill, he knew she was a star. She just blew the audition out of the water, according to him.
Hill retaliates into her role as Fisburne had into Steven Russell. Again, we talked to her before the scene, and then when she did the audition, she became that person. Duke recalls that moment.
Back in the Habit, a film that featured children of various backgrounds, races, and religions, was not only a chance for him to demonstrate what he could do with a huge budget: From the soul-stretched performance of Oh Happy Day to the dramatic, hip-hop infused performance of Joyful, Joyful, the story is enthralling and alive precisely because it does not deliberately solve racism through unity.
Sister Act 2 is a popular family film, but its critical rejection, as well as what it reveals about white critics' ability to accept Black films set against the backdrop of trauma, remains. In those days, I was never going to receive the same respect as the original.
Duke would go on to direct a decade as Hoodlum, which saw him re-teaming with Fishburne in a period gangster film set in Harlem during the 1930s. Despite its broad narrative similar to Sergio Leones Once Upon a Time in America, the film received mixed reviews both from critics and viewers.
Still, Duke's 90s came to an end, claiming it as the greatest film he's ever made, along with A Rage in Harlem and Deep Cover.
Duke has fluctuated between acting roles in films such as Mandy, High Flying Bird, and No Sudden Move, and directed films. He is currently working on Greenwood, a film about the Tulsa Oklahoma massacres, and To Coach with Love, a film about a coach and his Muslim students.
Duke wants to help young Black men today, by establishing a Younite Network, an online video news project that highlights African Americans in positive light. I come from a town in New York. A grant for a hundred million dollars has been spent on building a prison.
The desire to immerse Black people in art in a way that would appeal to a wider audience was partially what sparked the 90s Black New Wave, according to Duke. They were always demonstrating our values in a way wed never seen before. When they showed the families of these young men and their humanity, it was a major breakthrough.
While those films, particularly Dukes' work, were a significant breakthrough, the filmmaker knows the struggle isnt over. While contemporary Black filmmaking is being re-evaluated for their craft and significance (Deep Cover, for instance, was recently added to the Criterion Collection), there is no assurance that change will continue. From Blaxploitation to the Black New Wave, we have seen them come and go before. Is this today any different?
Duke said that if these films make money, they'll be here for a while. If they stop making money, then it's called show business, right? Or, as it should be called, business-show.
Whatever the future holds, the record will always demonstrate that during the 1990s, Duke altered Black cinema along with the film industrys expectations of the people who produced it. He did so by not taking the conventional route, but rather by introducing Black people to new genres such as noir, musicals, and period gangster films at the same time.
He remains the most underrated filmmaker in recent times, focusing on complex social themes, collaborating on incredible performances with his actors, and bringing a sharp realism to often sensationalized stories with seemingly easy grace. I want them to think of me as a filmmaker who wanted to be able to articulate issues that are relevant globally, and as an actor who gave humanity to Black people.
This article was part of IndieWires 90s Weekspectacular. Visit our 90s Week page for more information.