Expenses Duke on ‘Deep Cover’ and Hollywood’s gatekeepers


The amazing breadthof actor and filmmaker Bill Duke‘s career continues to be on display recently, with a limelight on projects new and old.

Fight it out plays a pivotal supporting role in the new Steven Soderbergh film “No Sudden Move” on HBO Greatest extent. His 1984 film “The Killing Floor, ” in regards to an unionization effort among slaughterhouse workers in World Battle I-era Chicago, was celebrated at this year’s Cannes Movie Festival. And his 1992 film “Deep Protect, ” starring Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum and Clarence Williams 3, has just been released upon home video as part of the Qualifying criterion Collection.

Fight it out first came to audiences’ attention as an actor, with functions in films such as “Car Wash” and “American Gigolo. ” In the early ‘80s, he moved into directing, 1st working in episodic television upon series such as “Dallas, ” “Falcon Crest, ” “Knot’s Landing” and “Hill Road Blues. ” At the same time, they have continued to act, appearing in films such as “Commando, ” “Predator, ” “Action Knutson, ” “Menace II Society” and Soderbergh’s “The Limey” and “High Flying Parrot. ”

“The Killing Floor” aired upon PBS but also screened at Cannes and Sundance exactly where it won a special court prize. His theatrical feature directing debut came with the 1991 Chester Himes version “A Trend In Harlem. ” Among his other directing credits are “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, ” “Hoodlum” and the documentary “Dark Girls. ”


“Deep Cover” was adapted by Henry Bean (“Internal Affairs”) and Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) from the guide by former DEA real estate agent Michael Levine. In the movie, Fishburne plays a cop recruited to go undercover amongst L. A. ’s medication dealers, rising in the ranks alongside a shady lawyer played by Goldblum. Packed with the energy of that era’s hip-hop music and with an evocative, expressionist look, the movie presents a topsy-turvy globe in which crime kingpins enjoy golf with politicians as well as the least trustworthy character can be Fishburne’s superior, played simply by Charles Martin Smith.

The film explores the tension between the polished sheen and seedy underside associated with early ‘90s Los Angeles, a lot as “To Live and Die in L. A. ” and “52 Pick-Up” did for the ‘80s. Comparing “Deep Cover” to classic film noirs, critic Angelica Jade Bastién recently had written that the film “takes the particular familiar attributes of the style and uses them to confront questions about black masculinity, the reach of state-enacted violence, and the futility associated with trying to fix a decaying system from the inside. ”

From his house in Los Angeles, Duke talked recently about “Deep Cover” and facing down the literal gatekeepers of Hollywood all through his career.

A man in sunglasses leans his head on his hand.

Professional Laurence Fishburne in ‘Deep Cover’

(The Criterion Collection)

What influenced you to make that preliminary transition into directing?

Expenses Duke: We started out as a writer and director of theater in New York and I wrote my own plays and directed many of them. I always was interested in movie, but I was intimidated from the equipment, the size of the deck hands, the cameras, everything. So I just stuck to leading theater. I got a show known as “Palmerstown, U. S. A., ” [created by] Norman Lear and Alex Haley. We were on for two seasons. And after that, I actually didn’t work for two years. Therefore i said, you know something, a person better get over your fears. So I applied to the American Film Institute under Tony a2z Vellani and the rest is certainly history. I mean, at that time, AFI was the bomb place to be in terms of understanding the build of directing. So I was very fortunate.

Was that a difficult decision to make, to enroll at the AFI? I wonder if starting your own directing career somehow felt like a failure in your acting profession.

Duke: This is the business of rejection and they tell you to get over it, however, you don’t. Because it has an psychological impact on you, a mental impact on you. And so you have to continue to dig yourself out of holes. Fortunately, I have meditation in my life, certain religious things in my life and friends that help assistance me. So with that combination, I was able to get through these tough times, but no matter you, those tough times keep arriving. As you age in the business, it gets worse. So it is like, thank God I was able to continue.


How did you come to direct “Deep Cover? ” It’s an adaptation of a book by a white medication enforcement agent adapted simply by two white screenwriters that becomes a film directed simply by Bill Duke and featuring Laurence Fishburne.

Duke: New Line noticed some of my work plus invited me into a conference. I pitched them our vision, et cetera. And they got it and it was a great collaboration. That’s before they got the big films; they were a completely independent film studio. And even though it had been initially a white hero, at that particular time medicines were obliterating the Dark 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 happy with, is that before that, films dealt with drugs on the street, individuals that actually sold the medicines on the street.

Yet 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 this. Why don’t we pursue those people? ” He tried to go after them. And he has been fired because the upper echelon people have protections. There’s a well used saying that a lawyer friend told me years ago. He said, “Do you know the distinction among a good lawyer and a great lawyer? ” I mentioned, “No. ” He stated a good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.

Two men lean on the hood of a car in an alley.

Jeff Goldblum, left, and Laurence Fishburne in ‘Deep Cover’

(The Criterion Collection)


The movie captures Laurence Fishburne at a very powerful point in his career. How did you come to cast your pet?

Duke: Exactly what Laurence has, he understands silence. Watch his function; he’s a great listener. It is like music. The only cause that music exists is because of the rests in between the notes and Laurence is not really afraid to rest plus respond to you. Not along with lines, but respond to you based upon not only what you mentioned, but how you said elements, and for that, you have to pay attention. So watch his work. You’ll see he’s an excellent listener and it comes organically out of what he just noticed.

He or she and Jeff Goldblum have such great chemistry. At times the movie becomes almost like this crazed buddy film. And you really leaned into that will, letting them improvise. As a director, how do you recognize that chemistry plus elevate it?

Duke: It’s very privileged I’m an actor also. So I really feel the figures that I’m directing. And am feel for the actors and am know what they’re trying to do emotionally and craft-wise. And thus there comes a point at which if you don’t trust your director, it’s over. And so I delivered them to a point of believe in and that they could rely on each other. And once that happened, these people really trusted each other plus trusted what I was performing with the story of the film. And so I was very fortunate because I coached them as a director who realized and trusted actors.


You mentioned the drug epidemic of the time you had been making the movie. The first shot of the movie is a slow-motion image of two guys cigarette smoking crack. It’s really unnerving and also unusual in that these are not the lead characters. As a viewer you don’t really know who individuals guys are and what you’re looking at. What did it suggest to you to be exploring that world at that time?

Duke: Well, they were the leads of the film in my opinion in the sense that these are the individuals who are being impacted by what I’m going to show you. They were young. Then we went back to the crack house. We noticed the deprivation, what these drugs do to the individual psyche, physiology. I mean, I was into drugs at one time and drugs are no joke, Plus withdrawing from drugs is a full-time, 100% courageous work. If you were into alcohol and drugs, it takes a great deal to kick that. And so i wanted to really address the fact that drugs are no joke. And individuals will relate drugs towards the street. I wanted to associate drugs to the corporate workplaces in this nation.

You did an interview with the L. A. Times in 1992 about the amount of films with Black company directors coming from Hollywood at that time. However, you said “I’m not thinking about making ‘Black’ movies. I am interested in making movies that will reflect my reality as I perceive it. ” And you also said, “I see these as American films. ” Do you feel that at that time within Hollywood, the business, and also the mass media, were trying to shoehorn every Black filmmakers together? That which was it like at that moment?

Duke: I will give you an example. I directed a film called “The Cemetery Club. ” Diane Ladd plus Olympia Dukakis. And I adored the play on Broadway and they brought it in my experience and we all worked on the script because it was about death and mourning people. When someone dies, how do you feel? What goes on to you? These three women’s husbands died and they created this cemetery club and helped each other bury the husbands, helped them grieving after. We took the film around the world.

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And here is the question I was consistently inquired, “Mr. Duke, this is a film about three white females plus 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 associated with that because of what I have been through. ” And they stated, but you’re a black director. And I said, yet Steven Spielberg just aimed “The Color Purple. ” And here’s what obtained me, man. This occurred at least 10 times, different interviewers can look at me when I say, well, Steven Spielberg directed “Color Purple. ” They look at my encounter 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 had been the first Black director upon “Dallas. ” I drove up to the gate, rolled straight down my window. The security safeguard looks into the window and says, “Who are you delivering for? ” “What did you say? ” “I said, who are you delivering for? ” As I’ve said in several other selection interviews, I wanted to say, “I’m going to deliver a can associated with whoop-ass to you. ” Yet I would have been the furious Black man in Hollywood. So instead I mentioned, “I’m delivering my skill as the first Black director on ‘Dallas, ’ can you please open the gate? ” The most gratifying matter was the look on his encounter. He almost let out just a little gasp. That was great for me personally.

But when you’re just trying to create your films and The show biz industry is bringing its baggage to you, how do you deal with that will? How do you continue to move forward to make the films that you want to be making?

Duke: Nicely, I don’t work a lot. They will consider me a renegade or even too old or whatever you want to call it. But I actually keep developing my own articles, documentaries, et cetera. But you understand, Hollywood is not an easy spot to be. And so if you attempt to stand by your integrity, you will find compromises you have to make, but you have to choose those compromises wisely because in media, whenever your name goes on a film, it is on there forever. Your great-grandchildren will see that. So sometimes you have to compromise to pay the particular bills. Other times you’ve got to stand up for your principles.


Three men stand in front of pool tables.

Jeff Goldblum, left to right, Laurence Fishburne and Roger Guenveur Smith in “Deep Cover. ”

(Criterion Collection)

About a year back there was a New York Times article on the lack of movies by Black filmmakers launched by the Criterion Collection. And today “Deep Cover” is being released, along with Dee Rees’ “Pariah, ” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love and Basketball” and a package set of films by Melvin Van Peebles. What does this mean to have your movie recognized this way?

Duke: I think it’s wonderful. We all like to be regarded for our work. Self-recognition is first, but when people say you have done good work and what you created communicated with these and they appreciated what you do and they want to reward you for it, that’s always optimistic. Because as you know, directing a movie is hard work. People don’t understand. I wish they could have people behind the scenes, seeing what we really do and all the particular challenges we face. Then you get a final product plus you’re hoping that people relate with it in the way that you designed them to. No guarantees, but you hope that they will. But it is work. Hard work.

What do you think of this concept of the film canon which there are gatekeepers, people making decisions about what films are considered worthwhile. Whether it’s work from Black filmmakers or a crime picture, what do a person make of who decides exactly what movies are worth concern?


Duke: It’s a very difficult space to be in because who’s determining the worth of it? What is their encounter? Do they know anything about character arc, tale arc, what you’re seeking to say with the film? Since creative people, it’s hard to be put into a box and be creative at the same time. Because your creativeness becomes about the box. And so you’re like, “I wish to breathe. Could you open the very best? ” “No, not right this moment, maybe next year. ”