Bill Duke on 'Deep Cover' and Hollywood's gatekeepers
The incredible breadth of actor and filmmaker Bill Duke's career has been on display recently, with a spotlight on projects new and old.
Duke plays a pivotal supporting role in the new Steven Soderbergh film "No Sudden Move" on HBO Max. His 1984 film "The Killing Floor," about a unionization effort among slaughterhouse workers in World War I-era Chicago, was celebrated at this year's Cannes Film Festival. And his 1992 film "Deep Cover," starring Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum and Clarence Williams III, has just been released on home video as part of the Criterion Collection. Fishburne plays a cop recruited to go undercover among LA's drug dealers, rising in the ranks alongside a shady lawyer played by Goldblum.
Duke first came to audiences' attention as an actor, with roles in films such as "Car Wash" and "American Gigolo." In the early '80s, he moved into directing, first working in episodic television on series such as "Dallas" and "Hill Street Blues." At the same time, he has continued to act, appearing in films such as "Commando," "Predator," and Soderbergh's "The Limey."
Q: What inspired you to make that initial transition into directing?
Bill Duke: I started out as a writer and director of theater in New York, and I wrote my own plays and directed some of them. I always was interested in film, but I was intimidated by the equipment, the size of the crews, the cameras, everything. So I just stuck to directing theater. I got a show called "Palmerstown, U.S.A.," (created by) Norman Lear and Alex Haley. We were on for two seasons. And after that, I didn't work for two years. So I said, you know something, you better get over your fears. So I applied to the American Film Institute under Tony Vellani and the rest is history. I mean, at that time, AFI was the bomb place to be in terms of understanding the craft of directing. So I was very fortunate.
Q: How did you come to direct "Deep Cover?" It's an adaptation of a book by a white drug enforcement agent adapted by two white screenwriters that becomes a film directed by Bill Duke and starring Laurence Fishburne.
Duke: New Line saw some of my work and invited me into a meeting. I pitched them my vision, et cetera. And they got it and it was a great collaboration. That's before they got the big films; they were an independent film studio. And even though it was initially a white hero, at that particular time drugs were obliterating the Black community. And so it was more relevant to a great extent, but one of the things in the book and in the script that we dealt with, which I was really happy and proud of, is that before that, films dealt with drugs on the street, the people that actually sold the drugs on the street.
But in the book, he says, "wait a minute, the people that are selling it on the street, they're being punished, put in jail, murdered, but they're not growing it, they're not shipping it in, they're not manufacturing it. Why don't we go after those people?" He tried to go after them. And he was fired because the upper echelon people have protections. There's an old saying that a lawyer friend told me years ago. He said, "Do you know the distinction between a good lawyer and a great lawyer?" I said, "No." He said a good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.
Q: You did an interview with the LA Times in 1992 about the number of films with Black directors coming from Hollywood at that time. But you said "I'm not interested in making 'Black' movies. I'm interested in making movies that reflect my reality as I perceive it." And you said, "I see these as American films." Do you feel that at that time in Hollywood, the business, and also the media, were trying to shoehorn all Black filmmakers together? What was it like at that moment?
Duke: I will give you an example. I directed a film called "The Cemetery Club." Diane Ladd and Olympia Dukakis. And I loved the play on Broadway and they brought it to me and we all worked on the script because it was about death and mourning people. When someone dies, how do you feel? What happens to you? These three women's husbands died and they created this cemetery club and helped each other bury the husbands, helped them mourning after. We took the film around the world.
And here's the question I was consistently asked, "Mr. Duke, this is a film about three white females and you're a Black director. Why are you directing three white females?" And I said, "Well, I've had people die in my family. I mourned. And I related to that because of what I've been through." And they said, but you're a Black director. And I said, but Steven Spielberg just directed "The Color Purple." And here's what got me, man. This happened at least 10 times, different interviewers can look at me when I say, well, Steven Spielberg directed "Color Purple." They look at my face and say, without any malice at all, "But that's different." How do you deal with that? "But that's different."
And I'll give you another example. I was the first Black director on "Dallas." I drove up to the gate, rolled down my window. The security guard looks into the window and he says, "Who are you delivering for?" "What did you say?" "I said, who are you delivering for?" As I've said in several other interviews, I wanted to say, "I'm about to deliver a can of whoop-ass to you." But I would have been the angry Black man in Hollywood. So instead I said, "I'm delivering my talent as the first Black director on 'Dallas,' would you please open the gate?" The most gratifying thing was the look on his face. He almost let out a little gasp. That was great for me.
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