Bill Duke: Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

This is the first in a weekly series that will introduce our Greater Than AIDS ambassadors, Black artists and celebrities who are using their VIP status to shine a spotlight on HIV/AIDS. We'll tell you what they're doing in their careers as well as in their HIV/AIDS activism.

When the preview for his latest documentary, Dark Girls: The Story of Color, Gender and Race, aired on Vimeo this summer, Bill Duke knew that the project would hit a nerve, but he never imagined how widely his trailer would travel. Shortly after it reached the Web, the nearly 9 1/2-minute reel went viral, with more than 2.1 million downloads in more than 150 countries. As the actor, director and filmmaker reflected on the response, he thought, "We've really got something here."

Dark Girls -- produced by Duke along with filmmaker-songwriter D. Channsin Berry -- explores the little-talked-about colorism that permeates Black communities and its often debilitating impact on dark-skinned women. Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who recently starred in the film The Help, joins scores of other beautiful chocolate-brown sisters who share stories of being discriminated against and rejected, as well as inspiring journeys to healing and self-love.

Dark Girls makes its eagerly awaited East Coast debut on Jan. 13 at Harlem's Apollo Theater, followed by other New York screenings in Albany and Poughkeepsie, and then in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in January. Upcoming screenings in Atlanta and Oakland, Calif., have already sold out. (To learn more, visit the film's Facebook page.)

"My experience as a young, dark-skinned Black man growing up in Poughkeepsie, and the things I've watched my sister, mother and children [go through] ... I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless," Duke said in an interview.

Duke's goal is to make a film that is not only entertaining but also empowering. "I call it 'edutainment': You can entertain while simultaneously educating. And I'm not saying be preachy, but involve messages that can help people understand that it is important for them to talk about and get involved in things that we should really care about," he says.

Duke will assess the success of Dark Girls -- made for a reported $250,000 and largely self-financed -- from a holistic perspective. "I know that many times, the box office is the bottom line," he says, "but there are other bottom lines that I think we really have to say: I know this isn't going to make a lot of money, necessarily, but it can bring an awareness that can save other people's lives."

Other aspects of Duke's life and work reflect this activist and humanitarian spirit. An ambassador for numerous charitable causes supporting inner-city youths, he is also extensively involved with the UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) mission to eradicate HIV/AIDS globally. In addition, Duke spreads HIV/AIDS-prevention messages through his documentaries: Cover, which deals with heterosexual men having relationships with other men on the "down low," and Faces of HIV, highlighted on the Bill Duke WebNetwork.

"I have had a number of friends who have died from AIDS," Duke explains, "and in my own family, one of my goddaughters found out that she was HIV infected. She had been married for a number of years and unfortunately found out that it was her husband that had infected her because he was having an affair with another man. It made a lot of us angry, but anger doesn't solve anything. We have to do something to prevent it and to educate, and so I became involved."

And Duke is quick to assert that we are indeed our brothers' and sisters' keepers. "You remember the time when, if an older person got on a bus, you got up and gave them your seat? Or when a man would open the car door for a woman? That's an appreciation of one another, of just basic respect," he says. "And somehow, most of that has been lost, and there has to be a reinstating of or rethinking of this."

With Dark Girls done, Duke and Berry will continue exploring the relationship between self-worth and skin color in a follow-up film, Yellow Brick Road, about Black women with light skin. "The question remains: What is our value to ourselves and to each other?" Duke says. "That's the real issue."

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.