“Great actors fall into darkness backwards,” Bill Duke likes to say, quoting an early teacher of his who suggested that the leap of faith required for someone to become the person they imagine in their mind requires a sense of self-belief powerful enough to overcome their fear of the unknown. Not only has Duke consistently done that over the course of the actor-director’s 40-plus-year career, he’s done it with an unparalleled degree of excellence and grace.
While cinephiles and casual fans alike may be familiar with Duke’s performances in films like “Predator” and “Menace II Society,” few recognize the full impact of his contributions behind the camera during the ’90s, when he hit his stride with a series of major and enduring work that range from “A Rage in Harlem” and the masterful neo-noir “Deep Cover” to the beloved crowdpleaser “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.” It’s a period of time that epitomizes how Duke helped reshape what a Black movie could be.
And yet, his name is rarely mentioned alongside Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes brothers, or Julie Dash in discussions about the decade’s most important Black auteurs. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t belong to a singular era? His movie acting career began with the Blaxploitation hit “Car Wash”; his television career coincided with the rise of African American filmmakers during the 1980s — now known as the L.A. Rebellion — during which he helmed episodes of “Dallas” (making him the first African American director to do so) and “Falcon Crest”; the height of his directorial feature run happened during the Black New Wave of the 1990s, when he was also making white-led movies like the Olympia Dukakis vehicle “The Cemetery Club.”
“In those days, if you were a Black director, you were expected to only do projects that were Black-oriented,” Duke told IndieWire during a recent interview via video call from his Los Angeles home. “And I wanted to break out [of] that box.”
Hailing from Poughkeepsie, New York, Duke was the son of working-class parents who were not initially supportive of his chosen profession. Their reticence changed when they watched him play Abdullah, a Black-Muslim revolutionary working in the titular business of director Michael Schultz’s “Car Wash.” “Abdullah was a proud Black man. I think after that [my parents] understood that I was a serious actor and that I didn’t just take roles to be funny or humorous. But that I was serious about my craft,” Duke said.
Already a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Duke leveraged his early film success to enroll in the American Film Institute. By the early 1980s, he was directing episodes of major shows like “Knots Landing,” “Dallas,” and the soap opera “Falcon Crest.” As one of television’s few Black directors, Duke faced terrible racism. While walking back to his trailer a teamster once called him “n****r.” Duke confronted the man, who denied uttering the slur, only for him to use it again once his back was turned.
Another racist incident occurred on the set of “Falcon Crest,” when a noise emanating from a kitchen interrupted shooting. The First AD refused Duke’s request to quiet the clatter, instead telling Duke to do it himself.
“I’m usually pretty calm, because I’ve faced that kind of thing a number of times. But that day I was a little impatient,” Duke said. “So I charged toward him.” Lead actress Jane Wyman, knowing the potentially career-altering ramifications of such a dust-up on set, grabbed Duke by the arm to stop him. When everyone came back from lunch, she had fired the First AD.
Duke often credits his supporters for his successes. He also praises his early influences like Oscar Micheaux, whose films taught him storytelling, and Sidney Poitier, who inspired him as one of America’s few Black movie stars. “When Sidney Poitier came on the screen, he was a hero. He looked like me, complexion-wise, and everything else. Friends of mine that looked like me, we felt that we had worth because somebody like us was being celebrated globally,” Duke said.
It’s why his chance meeting with Poitier at a Beverly Hills restaurant means so much to him. “I was with a young lady trying to impress her. Poitier walks in and says,’Good to see you. Come here. I gotta talk to you,’” Duke recalled. When the young actor explained to Poitier that he was having lunch, Poitier responded, “I guess you didn’t hear me.”
That did the trick. “I literally got up from the table, left the young lady I was trying to impress, and sat with him for about 15 minutes. I’ll never forget that moment,” Duke said. During their conversation, Poitier asked Duke for advice on how to navigate the prejudice he was facing.
In 1984, Duke made the leap to directing movies with “The Killing Floor.” The story of an interracial Chicago meatpacking union’s fight for their labor rights, the film displays a few of the characteristics that would come to define Duke’s blistering output in the 1990s, specifically through its focus on the ways that commerce can drive a wedge between Black and white folks, the (de)humanization of Black people, and the importance of forming multicultural communities.
While these piercing themes were further developed in Duke’s second feature, “A Rage in Harlem” — starring Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines and Robin Givens — they fully erupted in Duke’s gritty but stylish 1992 neo-noir classic, “Deep Cover.”
“Deep Cover” follows DEA agent Steven Russell (Laurence Fishburne) as he goes undercover in the Los Angeles drug scene in the hopes of ending the crack epidemic. In the guise of dealer, Russell forms a quick friendship with David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish lawyer for the cartels trying to strike out on his own by selling a synthetic drug that he thinks will outpace crack. As he slips deeper into the underworld, Steven sees the systematic failures spurring the drug trade and comes to appreciate his own complicity in it. Those epiphanies come at a cost, as Steven gradually turns into the sort of criminal he’s always despised, losing his own identity along the way.
“Deep Cover” remains forward-thinking for how it subverts other bi-racial male pairings like “The Defiant Ones” and the “Lethal Weapon” series, which simply deployed their characters as pathways to racial harmony. Duke felt that would have been low-hanging fruit in the aftermath of the brutal assault that Rodney King received at the hands of the LAPD.
In his film, Steven and David are flawed and fully realized people navigating a diverse and sprawling cityscape. Duke and DP Bojan Bazelli used red and green lighting to emphasize the danger and greed that respectively defined these characters. Duke leveraged that realism into a powerful exploration of doubleness within American policing, with “Deep Cover” looking behind the masks that separate justice and corruption, outlaw and informant, cop and criminal, black and white.
Another reason why “Deep Cover” works so well is because of Fishburne’s unflinching performance. Duke and the actor he calls “Fish” collaborated on bringing Russell to screen through table-reads to decide what they wanted this character to be. “There aren’t many actors that become the character,” Duke said. “They’re not acting. They actually surrender to the soul of the person they’re playing. When Fish comes to the set, he is that human being. He doesn’t come to the set talking like Fish. He actually comes to the set being that character. And it’s brilliant.”
Instead of using the cachet he earned by directing “Deep Cover” to ride the wave of visceral “urban” films (and enjoy the further acclaim that probably would have followed), Duke pivoted in very different direction by taking on a Jewish comedy in “The Cemetery Club.” Adapted from the same-titled stage play, the film stars Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis, Diane Ladd and Danny Aiello as widowed spouses who form a bond through loss, heartache, and late-blooming love. Its humor is deeply Jewish, very catty, and unlike anything you’d expect from a Black director during the 1990s.
Duke consciously took the project to break out of the box felt by other African American filmmakers. In fact, when shooting wrapped and the press tour began, the director found himself bombarded with questions asking why he, a Black man, took on a white-centered film. When Duke would bring up Spielberg directing “The Color Purple,” those same writers would simply reply, “That’s different.”
What’s most painful for the filmmaker is how unconsciously such micro-aggressions emerge. “I used to think it was intentional,” Duke said. “But it’s programmed. They’re not trying to insult you or anything, but that’s how they feel.”
You can draw a similar bias to 1993’s “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” a movie that managed to be Duke’s biggest box office hit (grossing $125 million worldwide), and also his biggest critical flop (it currently holds 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 unquestioned mega-hit, earning $231.6 million against a $31 million budget. And its star — the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg, then at the height of her fame — returned to reprise her role for the sequel while the original was still fresh in people’s minds. So why didn’t it succeed with critics?
The marvelously titled “Back in the Habit” does divert from its predecessor in a few areas: In contrast to the original, it’s not a story about a Black woman coming to save white nuns. It centered a San Francisco Catholic school on the verge of closure saved by its multiracial, mostly Black student choir. It was also helmed by an African American man at a time when studio budgets were seldom afforded to Black filmmakers (“Sister Act” had been directed by the white Emile Ardolino).
The sequel featured a breakout performance from Lauryn Hill, prior to her Fugees fame, playing a talented teenager whose dreams of singing professionally are squashed by her working-class mom (Sheryl Lee Ralph). From the moment Duke met Hill, he knew she was a star. “She just blew the audition out of the water,” he said. “I mean, when she sang, when she did the scenes, she was very young, but she was very mature as an actress.”
Hill fell backwards into her role just 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. You saw that transition,” Duke recalled. “It’s like she knew she was the one.”
For the director, the movie didn’t just provide an opportunity to show what he could do with a major budget. It gave him the chance to put together kids of different colors and backgrounds, classes, and cultures in a film that didn’t use their respective identities as a social scorecard. In that regard, “Back in the Habit” succeeds on every level: From the soul-stirring performance of “Oh Happy Day” to the improvised gags — such as Whoopi becoming glued to a chair — and the final show-stopping, hip-hop infused performance of “Joyful, Joyful,” the heartwarming tale is exuberant and alive precisely because it doesn’t consciously try to solve racism through unity. It unifies by simply existing.
While “Sister Act 2” has achieved cult status as a family favorite, the critical rejection of it, and what it says about white critics’ ability to accept Black films not set against the backdrop of trauma, still looms large. “I think a Black director doing something of this magnitude was not necessarily acceptable in those days,” Duke said. “In those days, I was never going to get the same respect the original got.”
Duke would go on to finish the decade with “Hoodlum,” which saw him re-teaming with Fishburne in a period gangster film set in Harlem during the 1930s. Despite a sprawling narrative akin to Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” and the searing performances that brought its history to life, the film received a mixed reception from both critics and audiences.
Still, it represented a creative high for Duke as he closed out the ’90s, to the point that he counts it — along with “A Rage in Harlem” and “Deep Cover” — as the film he’s most proud of. “In terms of people really getting to see my vision and my beliefs in film, those were the ones that really translated,” he said.
In the decades since, Duke has oscillated between acting — he’s appeared in the likes of “Mandy,” “High Flying Bird,” and “No Sudden Move” — and directing. He’s now working on a movie about the Tulsa Oklahoma massacres called “Greenwood,” and a film called “To Coach with Love,” about the inspirational relationship shared between a coach and his Muslim students.
He’s also growing his “Younite” Network, an online video news project providing uplifting segments concerning African Americans. With all of the anti-Black violence that has occurred and is still happening, Duke wants to give hope to young Black people today. “It’s just hard to watch what’s happening to our young boys and girls, but mostly young Black men these days,” Duke said. “I come from a town called Poughkeepsie, New York. They got a grant for over a hundred million dollars. And a lot of that money has gone toward building a prison.”
The fight to edify Black folks in art — thereby providing grounded images of African Americans for a wider audience — is partially what drove the ’90s Black New Wave during a decade that never stopped feeling the reverberations of the assault of Rodney King. “If you look at Spike [Lee] and John Singleton and the people of that era, they were telling stories about our community,” Duke said. “So that era gave us a whole new ability to see us on screen in a way we’d never seen before. We were considered just a bunch of gang members and killers and just bad people. When they showed the families of these young men and when they showed the humanity of the community, that was a major breakthrough.”
While those films, especially Duke’s work, were a major breakthrough, the filmmaker knows the battle isn’t over. While contemporary Black filmmaking — politically relevant and spiritually vibrant — is experiencing a resurgence among critics and at the box office, and films from the ’90s are being evaluated for their craft and importance (“Deep Cover,” for instance, was recently added to the Criterion Collection), there’s no guarantee change is here to stay. Duke has seen these peaks come and go before, from Blaxploitation to the Black New Wave. Is today any different?
“I think the bottom line’s gonna be, if these films make money, they’re gonna be here for a while,” Duke said. “If they stop making money, well, it’s called ‘show business,’ right? Or as it should be called, ‘business-show.’”
Whatever the future holds, the record will always show that during the ’90s, Duke altered Black cinema along with the film industry’s expectations of the people who made it. He did so by not taking the conventional route, but rather by putting Black folks in unexpected genres like noir, musicals and period gangster films, and by helming diverse narratives at the same time.
He remains the decade’s most underrated director — exploring complex social themes, collaborating on tremendous performances with his actors, and bringing a stark 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 speak about issues that are relevant, globally,” Duke said. “And as an actor playing roles that gave humanity to Black folks.”