Actor, producer, writer and director Bill Duke spoke with The RootDC about his new documentary “Dark Girls,” produced along with filmmaker D. Channsin Berry. The film explores the issues that dark-skinned women face. A 10-minute trailer provides haunting insight into the struggles of dark-skinned women.
Women of all ages painfully recount the damage done to their self-esteem and their constant feeling of being devalued and disregarded. One young black man in the trailer said he couldn’t date a woman with dark skin because “they look funny beside me.”
After filming the documentary, Duke said he knew it was a universal message that transcended race. The movie has been shown in cities including Atlanta, Oakland, Toronto and Chicago. The national tour, featuring Duke and Berry, comes to Baltimore on Thursday and Washington on Jan. 20.
Q: Tell us a little about the whys of the project.
A:We first started this off with not misguided, a naïve assumption, that this was a domestic issue. That based upon in Harlem, many years ago it was the flow and blow club, where if you could get in the club if your skin was white enough and your hair blew in the wind. If you didn’t have that, you couldn’t get in, or things like the brown paper bag test. And that really, how can I say, damaging assumptions that lighter is better and darker is not good and the impact that it has on not only us as a culture overall, but our children.
And as we examined it, we discovered skin bleach cream is a multibillion-dollar business worldwide, in Asia, India, Africa and it goes on and on. This nation, too, the irony being that while black women are trying to become less ethnic and more white, white women are risking skin cancer and tanning booths twice a week, Botoxing their lips, getting butt lifts to look more ethnic and crinkling up their hair.
We are not somehow satisfied with who we are as human beings, so therefore we want to be something we’re not. And our position is that God doesn’t make mistakes — how you’re born, how you look, it’s fine. And whoever said that’s not the case, they are saying it to their advantage somehow; so that’s our position
Q: Is self-esteem more important (than race)
A: They’re married. I’m not saying they’re not separable, but it’s very, very difficult because you’re told that this particular standard of beauty is what you should be. Many times it’s anorexic, pale, etc. Even the people maintaining it die very quickly. You can’t keep that up, right? But we’re told we have to be that to be beautiful.
We have a 5-year-old child in our film who has four dolls in front of her and her fingers are as dark as mine and we say, what is the beautiful doll: the white doll; what is the smart doll: the white doll. What is the ugly doll: the black doll; what is the stupid doll: the black doll. She’s gotten that message from someplace and that’s what we are addressing. The audience gets the opportunity to really experience it from the lens of our cameras. They decide what the right answer is. We don’t presume that we know.
We’re not healers or ministers. We’re filmmakers, so we present the facts of it. You determine if it’s worth doing anything about.
Q: What drove you to take this idea and turn this project into a reality?
A: From observing the unfortunate pain that friends of mine’s children are still going through. Just yesterday we were at the Links. A beautiful dark-skinned woman was at the desk, and she said to me, “I’m so glad you’re making this film.” I said, “Thank you.” She said: “You don’t understand. A few days ago, my daughter, who’s as dark as me, came home crying that they were calling her ‘blackie’ and all of these names at the playground at her school.” This is not something that happened 50 years ago; this is happening now.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish from this documentary?
A: To create a discussion, because in discussion there’s healing, and in silence there is suffering. Somehow if you can speak it and get it out, healing starts.
Q:What’s been the reaction of audiences?
A: It’s been phenomenal; women coming up to us and saying thank you for giving us a voice, thank you for giving our children a voice.
As a result of that, we’re making two more. One is called the ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ which is about lighter complected women and what they go through and the other one is, “What Is a Man?” which deals with manhood from a global and historical perspective.
Q: What did you guys learn from doing the film?
A: I think the deepest part is we learned our own prejudices and we learned our own indoctrinations. We learned where our own standards of beauty came from, what were our preferences and why were we making those decisions in terms of women.
You know you think your conscious is right; as you dig deeper in to the core of these issues, it’s a self-discovery process as well. And when you start facing those issues, they are not painless, let’s put it that way. And so this self-discovery process was part of it.
The other thing we learned was how deep some of the injury really goes. I keep repeating these two instances: One is of a young lady who is riding in a car with her mother and a friend and her mother is bragging on her daughter’s beauty, about her cheekbones and her lips and her face and she says in front of the friend, “Can you imagine how beautiful my daughter would be if she had a little more lightness to her skin?” And her mother is not doing this to damage her daughter; this is her belief system, this is what she’s been brought up with and she’s being honest about it.
And the other instance is a woman in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where I come from: We asked her what is the most damaging part of this phenomenon for her, and she states that, well, it’s that simple: “I’ve never ridden in the passenger seat in a man’s car. I’ve had very low self-esteem, and because of the darkness of my skin and being put down all the time, whenever I was with a man, I’d go to his apartment, he’d come to mine or when we’d go out as a date, I’d drive as his assistant or secretary. But I’ve never ridden in the passenger seat of a man’s car.”
It stopped us for a while; it took two or three minutes to digest that. She now is in the healing process, but she’s in her late 30s/early 40s and it’s taken a lifetime of going through that pain for her now to come to an adjustment that allows her to establish her self worth in a way where she doesn’t allow that any longer. These are the kinds of things we discovered.
‘Dark Girls’ will be playing at the Modell performing arts center at the Lyric in Baltimore, MD on Jan. 19th and at Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20. Tickets are sold here.
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