Bill Duke airs dirty laundry of skin prejudice in 'Dark Girls'

theGRIO Q&A - Bill Duke's new documentary explores the deeply rooted bias and low self-esteem that, according to the film, dark skinned women of all ages experience...

“Why are we bringing our dirty laundry out in public? Because it’s stinking up the house!” These are the words of Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, co-directors and co-producers of Dark Girls, a new documentary which explores the deeply rooted bias and low self-esteem that, according to the film, dark-skinned women of all ages experience. The poignant, raw, no holds barred interviews featured in the film open a dialogue on this shameful phenomenon.

Duke, who is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Tribute from the Director’s Guild of America, has helmed films such as A Rage in Harlem and Deep Cover, and acted in everything from American Gigolo to X-Men: The Last Stand, opened up to theGrio about his latest film.


theGrio: This is a thoughtful and powerful, and surely controversial documentary. What inspired you to make it, and why at this particular point in time?

Bill Duke: It came out of an idea I had based upon my childhood, what I’d gone through and seen, and what I’d seen people that I loved go through, like my sister, my niece, and other children in my family, and in my life, and I wanted to really give a voice to the voiceless. I brought the idea to Channsin Berry, my co-executive producer and director. We’d tried to get some investment dollars and we couldn’t find them, so we invested our own money — which is not painless. And why now? Colorism is unfortunately still an issue today. Dark skin is considered less than light skin in the in the minds of many in our community and in the media. We thought that finally it should be addressed, to give a voice to the voiceless.

What you two most painfully brought to light, in my mind, was the ignorance of our younger generation. The 5-year-old who identifies the darkest doll as stupid and ugly, and the young man who says he wouldn’t date a woman with dark skin because, he says “they look funny beside me.” What’s going on here?

Isn’t it amazing though? There’s a rapper, I’ve forgotten his name, he just did a video recently and on the call sheet for auditions, he literally stated “no dark-skinned women need apply.” Isn’t that something?

It’s frightening. Why do you think that this is still happening?

Well, I think that there are a lot of reasons. I think from a quantum physics point of view, we are still in shock. It’s PTSD syndrome, in terms of slavery, and all the things we went through. I also think that media commits the sin of omission and co-mission. Co-mission is when I actually say “you’re a fool,” you know, you’ve got your pants below your butt crack, and you’re disrespecting our women.

Or, I don’t know if you saw it recently, but the situation with the new Michael Jordan shoe, where we trampled each other for a $180 pair of sneakers. One of the kids came out and licked the shoe. Did you see that? He licked the shoe, tasted it, and said “I’ve arrived!” Ok, that’s the sin of co-mission. If you look at YouTube, there’s a 29-year-old black man with 21 children from 11 different women. That’s on YouTube, going around the world. What kind of message is that?

The sin of omission is whenever there is anything holistic, heroic, or positive, we’re simply not there. So a child who is watching that looks at TV, at films, or at magazine, and if there is something beautiful and she’s not there, then her assumption is that she is not involved in anything that is beautiful, or confirming in anyway, or positive

Now we have a black man as the leader of the free world, and an intelligent, beautiful, and dark-skinned first lady. This is mentioned as point of pride in your film. I’ve got to believe that this will help black women all over the world feel more beautiful and empowered. What do you think?

Well, our hope is that this film will create dialogue. A lot people in our community will say (laughs), “Why are you bringing our dirty laundry into the public eye?” My answer is because it’s stinking up the house! You know? And the thing is, if you don’t air it out, people will keep it in all of their lives. They never talk about it; they never discuss it, so there can’t be healing until there is dialogue. Our hope is that, yes, there is some healing factor in this, that people start talking about it, whether they agree with the film or not, at least it creates conversation, and I think that’s healing.Your documentary also addressed the worldwide multi-million dollar skin bleach phenomenon. This is a global sickness. When did you decide to look at this bigger picture?

Well, it took some two and a half years to do the research. We discovered that the skin bleaching creams are a 40 billion dollar business. Imagine that. It’s people trying to be something that they are not. It’s an issue of self-esteem and the ironic thing for me is that as black women are putting in hair extensions and weaves, and bleaching their skin and all these things to look whiter, the white women are plumping up their lips, risking skin cancer in tanning salons, putting in butt lifts, and crimping up their hair to look more ethnic. Don’t you find that highly ironic?

Absolutely. Especially considering that historically everyone wants to identify with whoever is in power. It’s turning the tables. We would so like to think that the perception of darker-skinned women changed over the years, but watching the film, I’m not so sure. Has it changed?

I don’t think it has, I actually think it’s worse. I think the media and the Internet and all that stuff, has created this perception of black women as these mammy types, kind of angry, you know, full of pent up emotions and resentments. And that these women are people to feared rather than loved. If find it to be ironic, because black women are some of the kindest, most caring people on the planet, but no one puts that image out there. No one is going to say this, so what I guess [D. Channsin Berry] and I are doing, with whatever limited resources we have, is to put the message out there. We need as much help as we can get, and we thank people like you for helping us get it out there. There is no one coming to save us; no one cares.

What were your biggest surprises while making this documentary? Was there anything unexpected?

Yes. The level of passion and level of pain was pretty intense to deal with because much of it came from very intelligent, professional, and successful black women; beautiful black women. They never talked about their journey to anybody, ever.

I’ll tell you a story that was one of the most painful for us. We were in Poughkeepsie, New York. We interviewed a lady in her late thirties, early forties. We couldn’t use the footage because there were technical problems, but we asked her what the most painful thing was in her journey. She said, “oh, that’s easy. I’ve never ridden in the passenger seat of a man’s car,” and we said, “well, what does that mean?” She responded, “until the last 10 years, I’ve never had any self-esteem. I’m very dark and whenever I had a boyfriend, I’d either go to his house or he’d come to mine. And when we would go out, I’d act as his secretary or his assistant and drive him around. I’ve never been in the passenger seat of a man’s car.” When she said that, the whole crew just stopped. You know, you’re not quite sure how to respond to that.

Your next documentary, Yellow Brick Road, will focus on the challenges that lighter-skinned women face. Give us a taste of what we should expect.

As we do the historical research, the women who are, as they say, high yellow women who are supposed to be privileged and closer to white, are the result of “massa” raping their mammas…

Well, originally yes… for sure.

Yeah, so that whole thing of privilege, oh, they were in the house, but “massa” was raping their mammas in the house, and keeping them close, of course! But as we get into this, they had as many horror stories as dark-skinned women. I mean, being chased through the school yard because it’s assumed that they think that they are, the word is hoity toity, they think they’re better. Some of them had their hair pulled, they’ve been beaten in bathrooms, and had their teeth knocked out because the assumption is, “You think you’re better than us? We’ll show you!” Our ignorance limitless.

It sounds like there is no winning. You can’t be too dark, or too light! But we are doing this to ourselves. The woman who wouldn’t sit in the passenger seat? No one was really stopping her from sitting there, she was stopping herself, and that comes from low self-esteem. That comes from parents not giving their children a sense of pride — it needs to start at home, by telling your kids that they are beautiful.

Every day. Because they are getting the opposite message from everyplace else and we have to tell them every day that they are beautiful.

Where can people see Dark Girls?

There are several screening coming up and packing houses, like we did this past weekend at the Apollo. We hope to get a theatrical release, but in the meantime, we are thankful and grateful that people are supporting us. They know that there’s message here.

For more information about the film and upcoming screenings, go to