Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on
Screen and Behind the Camera
By Bill Duke
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Many a memoir has begun with an introductory word about how the subject isn’t accustomed to writing about themselves and so it’s hoped that the reader will forgive any and all flaws and faults of what follows.
Not so the new memoir, Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on Screen and Behind the Camera. No, a chapter of that sort comes at the end of Duke’s book only it’s not an apology but rather a well-deserved pat on the back and thanks to those who helped him get not just the facts of his story but the emotions into his writing.
And Bill Duke’s new book is most definitely an emotional memoir.
You might not recognize his name but he’s one of those character actors you’d know if you saw his picture. As a very tall, very imposing, very dark-skinned bald man, he’s hard to forget. I first saw him in the movie Car Wash and I noticed him again in the original Predator and on television. I started noticing his name in credits as a director as well—of TV’s Dallas for one and then movies such as A Rage in Harlem (shot here in the Cincinnati area) and a marvelous crime drama I discovered on cable called Deep Cover.
Another problem with any memoir is deciding what to concentrate on. Clearly, a person’s entire life can’t be given the attention it deserves in a couple hundred pages but unless you’re Winston Churchill, multiple thousand-page volumes would probably be considered overkill.
In spite of the title’s seeming promise that his showbiz career would dominate his story, Duke chooses instead to introduce us to the person he was and the person he has become. We meet little Dukie, a young African-American boy learning some hard lessons about life in mid-20th century America. Dukie seems so normal. He likes to ride bicycles and have fun and play with friends and take care of his sister. We can’t help but recognize him as the All-American boy which makes it all the more jarring when the racism comes in.
It had always been there. He had grown up with it. If you know anything about the state of race relations in the US at that time, you’ve heard horror stories. It hits home all the more, though, when the casual but scarring name calling and the unprovoked violence happens to someone you’ve already learned to like.
With each new incident, young Duke became angrier. A succession of uncles and cousins sharing his rooms for various reasons each taught him a little more about life, as did, unfortunately, a trusted babysitter who molested both he and his sister.
Although a devotee of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black activists of the 1950s and 1960s, Duke learned that not all white people were monsters when he began to develop an interest in acting.
The story then goes into some detail about early stage successes as both an actor and a director in school, all the while embracing the sex and drug cultures of the period as well. We see his struggles to defeat his own demons as success after success continue to build up.
Eventually we do get to the parts about television and movies and documentaries but by that point, we realize that’s only a small part of the man Bill Duke really is—an imposing man, yes, a man still evolving, a wise man sharing the wisdom he has learned and gaining even more of the reader’s respect at the end than we had at the beginning.