Bill Duke’s trademark clean shaven head and dark, piercing eyes never go unnoticed. And thankfully in the film world his work demands just as much attention. The 65-year-old New York native has a résumé that is as impressive as they come. In addition to directing cult classics such as “A Rage in Harlem,” producing indie films such as “Cover” (which explores the down-low phenomenon in the Black community), and appearing in recent blockbusters like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” Duke has found time to teach at Howard University and Boston University. Yet even with such diverse talents, Duke remains refreshingly humble. “My parents taught me that it is my responsibility to make sacrifices for those after me,” says the 1985 Sundance Film Festival winner about his extensive teaching experience. Duke returns to the director’s chair to helm the film adaptation of Bishop T.D. Jakes’s best-selling novel “Not Easily Broken,” which skillfully examines the rocky marriage of a young Black couple (played by Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson). ESSENCE.com caught up with the renaissance man to discuss his former student Henson, the importance of ownership, and working with megapastor Jakes.
ESSENCE.COM: We rarely see positive examples of Black love in theaters and “Not Easily Broken” delivers that and more. Was accepting this project a risk for you?
BILL DUKE: Yes, it is always a risk. It is hardest to get films that are not action- or comedy- related made; films with [Black characters] in a nuclear family. Every time we don’t support a film, it sends a message to Hollywood. Many of our films tend to go straight to DVD as a result.
ESSENCE.COM: What was it like working with megapastor T.D. Jakes and Taraji P. Henson?
DUKE: It was wonderful and a privilege [to work with him]. He wanted the core of the film to be about God remaining in a marriage, regardless of the challenges that inevitably come. Taraji was a [film] student of mine along with Anthony Anderson. She’s always had talent. She helped lead the class. So many young people think they can just come to L.A. with their good looks to make it and they don’t study the craft of acting so they get spat out and raped by the business. Without studying it, there’s no foundation.
ESSENCE.COM: This film touched upon an important subject that we don’t see often on the silver screen: relationships between Black mothers and daughters. Was it a challenge to direct those scenes?
DUKE: The last scene is my favorite in the whole film. Jenifer Lewis’s character is continuing to suffer even after her daughter [Henson] confronts her about her marriage being on the road to recovery. Henson’s character confronts her mother about her bitterness. Lewis’s character wasn’t a bad [person], she was just trying to protect her daughter from what she went through.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you enjoy working in front of or behind the camera?
DUKE: At this point in my career, I enjoy being behind the camera more. [For me] it is collaborating with people on one vision. I love both, but my preference is directing. Now I want to own as much content as I can. I have my own media company called Crossroads Central. We should be up and running by the end of the year. I hope to cover issues that deal with values that are more akin to who we are as a culture.
ESSENCE.COM: Why should people go see “Not Easily Broken” this weekend?
DUKE: The first and second week of release is the most important time to support a film. Also, if you want to laugh, you should see it; Kevin Hart is hilarious. Lastly, this is not a Black film, it is a human film. Black folks are delivering the message.