Do actors and other artists have a special obligation to society as truth-tellers and activists?
Moreover, do successful Black and brown actors and other members of marginalized groups have an even greater obligation to speak truth to power and by doing so to help empower their communities?
These questions are made even more important during the Age of Trump, which is a moment when the United States is besieged by a white neo-fascist movement, a counter-revolution against the civil rights movement, a pandemic made worse by a willfully negligent regime, economic collapse and growing social inequality, militarized police, global climate disaster, and many other crises.
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with actor, screenwriter, producer, and director Bill Duke. During his five-decade career he has appeared in many films including "Menace II Society," the 1980s action film classic "Predator," and as "Agent Percy Odell" in the ongoing TV series "Black Lightning." Duke's directing credits include "Deep Cover," "A Rage in Harlem," and "Hoodlum."
He is also the founder of the Duke Media Foundation, an organization that prepares young people for careers in television, film, and video production.
Duke spoke to Salon in conjunction with the release of the 4K restored version of his acclaimed 1984 film "The Killing Floor." In the conversation, he reflects on the personal and professional choice – and the cost that comes with it – of his being a truth-teller about race, Hollywood and society. He also shares his thoughts on the George Floyd protests and this moment of social activism and what should come next in terms of creating substantive positive social change in America. Duke also explains why "The Killing Floor" and its story about the Red Summer of 1919, the labor movement, and white on black racial pogroms and other terrorism still resonates today in the Age of Trump.
Moreover, Duke offers insights about the allure of fame and how he has maintained his dignity, humility, and self-respect as a Black man in Hollywood.
Given all that is happening in the Age of Trump with the pandemic, economic collapse, and his presidency and what it has wrought more generally, could you have made this up? It is unbelievable, like a horrible story sitting in the reject pile at a movie studio or book publisher.
No, it would be a horror film, and nobody would believe it.
One of the reasons I have such great respect for you and your work is that as an actor who happens to be Black you could have easily chosen to be quiet, not told inconvenient truths, and just played it safe – and made lots more money doing so. Telling the truth about society is a great risk in Hollywood – especially for a Black person.
It's not easy because you do pay a price for it. I don't work as much as I'd like sometimes because people take my candor and telling the truth as being some type of intimidation. But I choose to share how I feel. If you keep that energy in it hurts your health because you are not being true to yourself.
As a country and a people we are in the midst of a perilous and challenging time – but one with great potential for positive change. Watching the George Floyd protests I saw something beautiful. There were Black, white, brown, old and young folks standing up for what is right and risking their lives.
God bless them for it. To do what they did took courage. But now what must happen with the protests is that there must be a strategy. Passion and anger without a strategy is called frustration. We cannot play checkers in a chess game. What are you going to replace the existing system with? How are you going to come up with a comprehensive solution?
What of actors and others in Hollywood – especially Black and brown folks – who are able to use their money and resources to help create positive social change? What is involved in deciding to be public with one's politics versus working in private and behind the scenes to create positive change in society? There are merits to both approaches.
It is a matter of individual choice because there are consequences either way. If a person is not vociferous and outgoing or inclined towards those traits, speaking out may not be something they do well or desire. So, if you want to help with a cause then you support organizations, you give money, you give advice, you give whatever you can. Other people are the spokespersons. They are leaders in the sense that they want to have a public presence, they're eloquent, they're clear, they're decisive. They have not only ideas but strategies, so they choose to speak out about a given political or social cause. Both approaches, both the more overt and the behind the scenes, have validity and utility.
Given the state of the world, how are you managing your emotions on the day-to-day?
One of the things I had to do is to get past my anger and frustration. The deaths of these young people and even older people are horrible. Of course, not all police officers are bad, but there are some narcissistic sociopaths who do bad things against the public. I am very angry and upset with those police. But again, my question is, what are we going to do as a society in terms of solutions? What are we as a country going to do to make positive systemic change and not just superficial improvements?
You always possess such dignity and presence in your performances.
There are a lot of roles that I've turned down because the images presented by those roles do not present Black people in a good light. The roles were negative and stereotypical. I am not interested in playing such characters. I prefer to continue to present our full humanity as Black people. Black men are not these unconscious beasts that just commit crimes, and are bad to women, and are hostile and angry, and uneducated.
You have played very memorable characters in such films as "Menace II Society," "Predator," and others. Why do some characters endure over time and others are forgettable?
When you read a script, you understand not only what it's about but who you are as a character in it. What can you bring to the role as talent? What part of your humanity can you bring to that human being? Let's say you play a bad guy. In that role as an actor you should not think of yourself as playing the villain. For example, my character Agent Percy Odell in the "Black Lightning" television series does not think of himself as a villain. What does Odell think about himself? Odell does not care that about your feelings. Odell works for the government. He loves his country. He is hired to protect it against people who might in any way be subversive. In his mind, as long as Odell does his job, he does not care what anyone else thinks. If a subversive person has to be dealt with then they have to go. Those subversives are dangerous and a threat to the public.
How hard it is to make a living as a working actor? How does one work through – especially as a non-white person in Hollywood – the dilemma of, "I may have to take this role to eat and keep a roof over my head, even though it lacks any dignity." What's that thought process like?
If your passion is acting, and you have three children that you must feed and then send off to college then you have a lot of concerns to weigh. You have your self-respect and your integrity – but you are also a father and a husband. How do you weigh that? How do you balance it? And sometimes you make sacrifices on both sides. Such a balancing act and burden are not easy.
You have managed to remain grounded and humble. How do folks get seduced by stardom?
If a person has no understanding of who they are as a human being then all they have is the superficial. The more accolades you get, and the more money you make, and the more famous you are, that becomes your identity because you are not dealing with the core issue of who you are as a human being. Outside of your fame, what makes you happy? And some people are afraid of love, commitment, family, and relationships. Because of that fear they rely more on their fame and their public recognition.
Fame is okay, but when you're sick in your bed, and you need somebody to help you, you can't call on fans, you know? What kind of relationship did you build with other people who would care enough about you to help you when you are sick? In a crisis? Vulnerable? Everyone's sick day is coming. We will all need help at some point in our lives.
As Faulkner observed, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." Your 1984 film "The Killing Floor" resonates today. It is about the Red Summer and white riots against Black people in 1919. But with Donald Trump and his movement and the racism and violence he has spawned and channeled – and of course the recent rally in Tulsa – the film speaks to the present in a very ominous way.
Unfortunately, you're right. One of the major things about the movie that I love is how in the beginning the movie was about inequality and race along the lines of who was in the labor union and who was not. At the end, people came together across the color line in pursuit of a common cause for justice and human rights as workers. That reflects my core belief that we are all human beings and once we get past racism and other forms of ignorance and bad behavior, we are all, whatever our color, human beings.
Of course, we should always recognize our heroes as Black people – they brought us through Jim Crow segregation and slavery. Such people are the heroes of my life.
There are so many great performances in "The Killing Floor" where you see the humanity of Black people in our struggle and the ups and downs of our lives. There was so much dignity in the film and those little moments where the Black Freedom Struggle and day-to-day resistance and life is presented with such verisimilitude and sincerity. How did you get those performances?
I was very fortunate to have great actors working on a low budget PBS project. But when folks read the script for "The Killing Floor" they could really relate to the project. The great Moses Gunn, he was one of my favorite people and favorite actors. Gunn really was one of the best ever. Alfre Woodard was also in the film. We were so very fortunate to have amazingly talented people who were committed to the cause of the script.
Thinking about the white on Black pogroms and other terrorism in Tulsa and Chicago and other parts of America during the early 20th century, there is little public discussion of how Black people fought back. In Tulsa, Chicago, and other parts of the country Black World War One combat veterans took a leading role in Black self-defense. In "The Killing Floor" those moments were so powerful. Those Black World War One vets were truly men of bronze.
Having those Black men stand up for their communities was one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
How do you get that quiet dignity and pride in being Black men who are protecting their families and communities out of the performers? None if was overly dramatic and hyper-masculine. Those brothers were not caricatures.
I asked them a question. I said to them, "How many of you have children? Raise your hands. How many of you love your wife, your children? Raise your hands." Then I said, "Okay, gentlemen, what would you do if someone was threatening to take the lives of your wife and your children?" And that emotion is easy to get to because each one of them didn't say a thing in response. They just looked at me like, "You know what I would do." You see, when you come to the understanding that someone is threatening the people that you love, and you're a man, and your manhood is determined by how you respond to that situation then something happens. Those questions helped to channel the energy in those scenes.
Your career has spanned some five decades as both an actor and a director. What advice would you give to a young director?
If you are going to be a director you must really understand the craft of directing. Directing has two components. One is the aesthetic, where you sit down with the writer, you come up with a vision of the script that you have to translate to sometimes a hundred people or more. The second part is management. This involves three things: time, people, and money. You can be a very creative person. But if you cannot manage time, people, and money, then you may not work as a director very much because you are not making the investors their money back with a profit.
And I used to think very badly of that because I thought, "Wow, I'm an artist." So I went to my agent one day and talked about it. I said, "I go into these meetings. They tell me how much they like the project, but I never hear from them again." My agent then said to me, "Hey, Bill, did you answer the essential question that was on their minds in the first five minutes of your pitch?" And I said, "What question is that?" He said, "Bill, here's what they want to know. Outside of your passion, how in the hell you going to make them their money back? I know you may not agree with it, but if somebody asks you for $5 million, wouldn't you want to know that, too?"
It isn't charity.
No, it's not charity my brother. It's not charity at all.
Being a child of the 1980s, "Predator" is one of my favorite films. Why do you think "Predator" endures as a film all these years later?
We had a great director and great actors who came together as a collaborative team. John McTiernan, is an amazing filmmaker. His mastery of visual storytelling is something that most directors do not possess. The storyline of these brothers on a mission is compelling. Arnold Schwarzenegger was great. He was humble and every day he came to work with 100% focus and energy. No ego. Just doing the best he could. There were so many elements which made "Predator" a success and a true classic.
"The Killing Floor" in 4K is now available and is being screened online and in select theaters.