IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmakers Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry Talk 'Dark Girls'

Monday, 30 September 2013 23:17 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmakers Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry Talk 'Dark Girls'

Actor and director Bill Duke has been making feature films for over 35 years but can now add documentary filmmaker to his resume!

As an actor, Duke has appeared in movies like Car Wash, and American Gigolo, but is probably best known for his roles alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the classic ‘80s action films Commando and Predator. He has also appeared in string of successful movies like Bird on a Wire and Payback with Mel Gibson, Action Jackson, Menace II Society, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, X-Men: The Last Stand, and one of my personal favorites – director Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. But Duke is also an extremely respected Hollywood director and has helmed such popular films as A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover, Hoodlum, and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.  

Now Duke has teamed with documentary filmmaker D. Channsin Berry to direct the new film Dark Girls, which is currently available on DVD. The movie explores the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin color - particularly dark skinned women, outside of and within the Black American culture. The film features interviews with many prominent people who share their personal stories including Academy Award-nominated actress Viola Davis

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the great Bill Duke, as well as his directing partner D. Channsin Berry about their fascinating work on Dark Girls. The two filmmakers discussed the new movie, what attracted them to the project, assembling the interviews, being male directors making a film about the female experience, what they learned from making the film, why the project was a cathartic experience for them, the movie’s most powerful moments, how we can fix this problem, First Lady Michelle Obama’s positive role in American culture, Duke’s adjustment to documentary filmmaking, and how the movie was really found in the editing room. 

Here is what Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry had to say about Dark Girls:

IAR: To begin with, Mr. Duke, I’ve been a big fan of your work as an actor and a filmmaker for many years. 

Bill Duke: Thank you. God bless you my friend. I appreciate it.

I think Deep Cover is one of the all-time great movies!

Duke: Thank you so much. Yes, that’s one of my favorite films I’ve worked on. 

Dark Girls is an important documentary and I wanted to start by asking both of you what attracted you to this subject matter? What fascinated you about this subject and how did your own life experiences inform you while making this film?

D. Channsin Berry: Three years ago it came into being. Bill called me up and said, “Let’s do something together.” So we came up with doing Dark Girls and we hit the road and doing interviews all over L.A., Atlanta, New York and Chicago. We found out it was really easy to do because so many women wanted to talk about it. So it was easy trying to find all the women because they had such great stories. But there were a lot of stories that we left on the editing floor that we couldn’t even put into the film. If we put every story that was great in the film, the film was going to be at least four hours long.

Can you talk about assembling the interviews, how you chose whom to speak to, and the different women you found that wanted to talk about this subject? 

Duke: We just gathered people who we knew and then people who heard what we were doing that wanted to be a part of it. Channsin was gracious enough to use the footage that he was working with for another film and put Viola Davis in. He was putting together different elements as I traveled to different parts of the country. We asked women if they would be involved and if they wanted to be a part of it. I think it’s basically a pain that has been in existence for a long time, but because it’s embarrassing to some women they’re reluctant to speak about it. This was an opportunity to create a dialogue and we believe that in dialogue there can be healing. 

As men, did you find it a difficult subject to approach with women? Did you feel any resistance from your subjects because you are male directors rather than female?

Berry: No, it was very easy for us because as I was saying Bill grew up in New York and I grew up in New Jersey, and as two dark skin little boys being ridiculed and ostracized we know it was painful. It was very emotional and painful for us, so when Bill talked about it doing this, it was an emotional connection for both of us. It was really easy to get involved to do it.

Did you find making this film to be an emotional and cathartic experience for yourselves?

Berry: Definitely. Every interview was somewhat painful to hear and reminiscent of some of the things we had gone through as younger people. The fact that in 2009, 2010, 2011, and to this day that women are still going through this is incredible. It brought out a lot of stuff for us and it was a very cathartic for both of us I think.

Was there anything that any of the people you interviewed said that really surprised you and maybe changed your outlook on the subject?

Berry: Bill has a story about New York.

Duke: I’m not going to be redundant, but the thing that was most shocking to me was an interview that I had in New York. It’s not in the movie because the sound was so poor unfortunately. This black woman in her late ‘30s or ‘40s was asked how this impacted her and she said that until the last four or five years of her life she’d had very low self esteem and as a result of that she’d never ridden in the passenger’s seat of a man’s car. I said, what do you mean by that? She said, “Well, you know until a few years ago whenever I met a man I’d go to his house, he’d come to my apartment, or when we went out I would drive and he would like sit in the passenger’s seat. But I until five years ago I had never ridden in the passenger’s seat of a man’s car. 

There is a very powerful moment in the film where a therapist is showing different shaded drawings of children to a little girl and she is asked to pick which one is smart and which one is ugly. She chooses the lightest shaded child as the “smart” one, and the darkest shaded child as the “ugly” one. Did you shoot that footage yourself or was that something you found?

Berry: That was footage that we found, but that was a more recent test that was done. I think the first one was done in the ‘50s or ‘60s. So that was more recent testing that was done and they still got the same results thirty or forty years later. So a lot of it has to do with two things. What is not being done in the home from mothers to daughters, from fathers to daughters is saying that I love you the way you are and you’re beautiful the way you are. The other thing is that the media keeps perpetuating the same thing over and over again and not putting people who look like us in prominent places in media ads, television commercials, sitcoms, or high-profile movies. We definitely don’t exist. The dark skin person doesn’t exist unless they exist in an evil, very demeaning way as a character.

Mr. Duke, as a filmmaker yourself and also as an actor who has played the villain in many films before, how do you feel about being part of that media persona? 

Duke: I think it’s a two-fold question. One is I don’t have any regrets in terms of anything I’ve ever done, but I understand also that actors like myself also have taken roles that they were offered. I think that today that is still an issue for darker skin people. I want Viola Davis to play a leading lady in the film. Will a dark skin woman be the leading love interest? I wonder if that’s going to be permitted! 

Berry: Did you catch the word there? He said, “permitted.”

Then to that point, how can this change? People will see this movie, and that might change some minds, but what needs to happen in order for people’s minds to be changed permanently on this matter?

Berry: First of all, I think people of color need to take control of their own images. Stop letting people who don’t look like them control what they look like, what they say, what they do and how they act. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that they always treat diversity in our industry behind the scenes and in front of the camera. But how much of that really goes on and how much of it is supposed to be politics? Much of it is. The thing is that in order to stop this thing you’ve got to know that what people don’t understand mentally, they understand financially and then you hit them in the pocket. You cut them off where the money flows. That’s how you stop it. Cut the money, and cut the bullshit. 

Duke: Cut the money and we’ll call you honey. 

The film also talks about the positive role First Lady Michelle Obama has played to change that negative stereotypes, cam you talk about that?

Berry: Michelle in the film is a very powerful statement that for the first time we see an African American family on the front line of world news. Barack is looking as he looks because he happens to be mixed, but Michelle looks like a dark skin sister, and she represents many who look like that. So that has been a wonderful thing for many women across the world. Not just in the United States, but also across the world that her image has been able to be put out that way and she looks the way she does, and can carry herself the way she does. That’s a wonderful thing for young girls coming out who said, “Wow, that’s what I can look like, that’s what I can be.” She’s dark and she’s lovely the way she looks. 

Mr. Duke, I know you’ve done a couple of documentary projects in the past, but you are predominantly a narrative filmmaker, so is there an adjustment that you have to make as a director when you are working on a documentary film?

Duke: Yeah, I think documentaries are a very different discipline and you’re depending upon real people to tell their stories. There’s no script really. You have an understanding of where you want to go with it. You may have a collaborative outline in your mind with your co-producer, but the people themselves, they’re the authors. There’s eloquence to their simplicity and a profound take to their experiences. It could never be written because it’s real life. There are great scripts by great authors, but there’s something about sitting down with another human being. They’re not an actor, not a writer, and they say something to you that touches you so deeply that it is an incredible experience and that they trust you enough to really be truthful and open up.

Finally, with a documentary like this, how much of the film is actually found in the editing room?

Berry: Much of it. We had an outline, but I mean I’ve been doing documentaries for 31 years and I always have an outline. This was no different. We got into editing and found out that there were many more diamonds than we thought, which changed the film started to build itself. We just kindly tapped on it to push it a certain way, but it really kind of flows in its own holes. 

Dark Girls is currently available on DVD. 

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