Derek Luke and Bonnie Mbuli: Light It Up

“I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself” - Nelson Mandela

By now you have probably already seen, heard, or read about the new movie Catch A Fire starring Derek Luke and Tim Robbins. It is a true story that touches on all too familiar subjects for our young men - issues such as terrorism, racism and struggling with a system that will not take “innocent” for an answer.

With South Africa’s spotlight growing by the day, this movie could not come at a better time, especially for its budding Hollywood stars Derek Luke and Bonnie Henna. Although veteran actor Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) plays a convincible villain, it is the young, Black actors that help make this film shine.

Luke plays Patrick Chamusso, an oil-refinery supervisor in 1980’s South Africa whose false arrest and murder of his friend drive him to become a freedom fighter. Luke, who once worked at the Sony Pictures Studio shop hoping to be discovered, proves he is capable of holding a lead on his own. After being chosen by Denzel Washington to star in Antwone Fisher, Derek’s career efforts in mediocre films such as Biker Boyz and Glory Road have not given him room to flex his acting chops. Catch A Fire provides Derek with much-needed dramatic power to prove his talent. The film also introduces a new talent to the world - South African soap star Bonnie Mbuli.

Derek spoke to us about his experiences in Africa, while Bonnie enlightened us on African Hip-Hop. Are you ready to go to the motherland with us? Alternatives: How long was the Catch A Fire shoot in Africa?

Derek Luke: The shoot lasted almost four months.

AHHA: Was this your first trip to South Africa? How was it?

Derek: Yes, this was my first trip to Africa. Growing up there have been conversations that we don’t have a culture. Then you have Kanye West talking about blood diamonds! I think we talk [about a lack of culture] but what I knew about Africa was through Hip-Hop and wearing medallions. Then you go to South Africa and no offense, but if I say, “Yo you feel me man?” they don’t. That’s not what Africa is about. They talk so passionately [about it]. It is more than that. It is Nelson Mandela. It is home.

AHHA: Was it a culture shock?

Derek: Oh yeah because the only thing I have in common is the color of my skin. They speak nine different languages. When you go to South Africa, on the side of the freeways are molehills of dug up sand, and in the past that was all gold. It was diamonds. South Africa is so rich. If you have ever seen a glossy magazine, like Oprah’s magazine, her whole magazine’s paper is made from the factory that Patrick worked from. That factory is the only place in the world that converts coal to oil. They make their own oil. You hear it is a poor country yet they are so rich in resources. But the people’s hearts are richer.

AHHA: Was it hard to learn the language and accent?

Derek: It was because as an actor you have to come back. You know the performance is going to be on television one day. And the other part was going to South Africa and meeting Patrick. Patrick is looking at my bio and he says “This is a man from hood! I don’t know this man. Where is Denzel Washington? Where is Cuba Gooding, Jr.?” He thinks he looks like Cuba Gooding, Jr.! I’m a fan of those guys but I was like “Hey man, I’m here right now. This is what you got!”

AHHA: Do you feel that Hollywood is tough for Black actors being that there is only a hand full of good roles?

Derek: It was tougher when I was looking from the outside in.

AHHA: You mean when you were working at the Studio shop?

Derek: Yes, but it’s impossible to move up a mountain and carry a mountain at the same time.

AHHA: What do you mean by that?

Derek: Meaning that, if you choose hope you have to kick failure, and you have to kick negativity out. Constantly day after day, year after year my role models - Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Don Cheadle, Will Smith, Tupac, Jay-Z, P.Diddy - every year these awesome guys pop up and every year they say it’s hard. Meaning that if you don’t step up, that’s the problem.

I think the problem is from afar it can look like a lack of Black actors, but I think there is a lack of people being encouraged to step up and believe in their dreams. I was picky about my friends. Sometimes my friend was a book. Sometimes my encouragement was listening to All Eyez On Me. Sometimes it was watching a movie. I stay around those men I mentioned even though it was not physical.

That’s the reason I wanted to play Patrick, because if you say positive things at once, and if you say negative things at once, that will make you frustrated. That will make you want to rebel. That will make you want to rob. I like making movies that deal not with the Black man, but deal with turmoil that men go through. I’ve met Indian, Black, Jewish, Puerto Rican guys and they all ask, “Is it really hard in Hollywood?” - so they deal with it too.

AHHA: Many kids are going to watch this movie and relate to Patrick’s defiance. It is the same as being on the streets and engaging in illegal activity, but how do you come up on the other side?

Derek: I think the way you come out is the way Patrick came out, and that is forgiveness. None of us in this generation grew up during the civil rights movement. Yet the fact that some of us are the offspring of that seed; whatever our parents went through and experienced, we picked up. So when you go to South Africa and meet a man who has been tortured, a man who has been dealt wrong, a man who enjoys working, a man who is ambitious, a man that was put in prison for 10 years not guilty, and in the cell Nelson Mandela’s on the other side serving 18 years. You come out and you forgive the man who put you in there? That’s gangster.

AHHA: Sounds like an amazing experience. What did you learn from it?

Derek: My thing was how to be in Hollywood talking about having a dream, forgive, and go forward. You can’t. That is what represents going up that hill, moving the mountain and having the boulder on your shoulder. Until I saw Patrick’s life, I did not understand why I couldn’t go forward. I was mad at everybody. Who knew when I was going to South Africa, I would learn that lesson?

AHHA: What do you think about mass media not embracing these types of movies that you like to star in?

Derek: Well, we made Antwone Fisher for 15 million. DVD sales were over 70 million. So there was a huge response. And it was cool that nobody knew who I was. Everyone knew Denzel Washington. What you learn is that you make movies for people; you just hope that people will enjoy it.

AHHA: Did you know Jay-Z has been over in Africa?

Derek: Really? Wow! I wish I were over there with him. I am serious. I really wish I were there. That would be crazy.

AHHA: Peter Hedges, the director of Pieces of April, in which you starred, said, “Not since Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned for Gilbert Grape have I felt like I was in the presence of someone so special.” With that kind of feedback from Hollywood, how does it make you feel?

Derek: He said that? I’ve never heard it. Wow. I like the fact that Peter Hedges is not a man of color, except in his heart. I think that is amazing. That is what all this stuff is about. Here you have a man who has no gain put to a call out like that.

AHHA: Does it hurt to be so good looking?

Derek: [laughs] How do you answer a question like that? I guess if that’s the case, then it’s humbling.

AHHA: How did you meet your wife?

Derek: I met her at a success seminar. We were meeting on the same road, at the same time, so I call that the divine. She said I was the only guy that wasn’t hitting her and I looked innocent.

AHHA: You got no game?

Derek: [laughs] Yeah, I have no game. I was so interested in the seminar, for the first time I felt free. I wasn’t talking to girls or anything. That freedom was huge for me.


Bonnie: This is my first time in America so it is quite overwhelming…

AHHA: This must be a huge culture shock for you!

Bonnie: It is actually. I knew that America just has a bigness about it. But I didn’t know it was that big.

AHHA: Can you tell us about Hip-Hop in Africa? Are there many artists coming up?

Bonnie: There is. First Hip-Hop was this American thing when it hit South Africa. I think people got an understanding of the voices behind it - the poetry, the commentary on life, the dreams, that kind of thing. And the freedom of it - people began to understand what it meant for [African] Americans and what it could mean for us. Unlike before, where people were copying an American style of Hip-Hop, now people are finding their own identity within the genre of Hip-Hop. People are rapping in Zulu, Sotho, in all the indigenous African languages and finding their own flow, their own vibe, and their own personality of it. You don’t understand how excited I am to be having this interview. I’m here and I’m talking about South African Hip-Hop!

AHHA: Plenty of rappers are going back to their roots. Do you think that matters to African Hip-Hop?

Bonnie: It matters a whole lot. Africans for a very long time have identified with American Hip-Hop but I don’t think that they felt like there was a place in that world for them and their unique expression of it. Now with all these rappers like Ludacris, and as you say Jay-Z, coming to visit and embracing the culture- people are like, “Wow we can communicate.” It’s doing a lot for the youth, for their motivation, and their morale. They feel like a part of the global village. Hip-Hop has become one voice but it is diverse.

AHHA: I was looking you up on the internet, and you have been called a bitch and had all this drama…

Bonnie: [laughs] You can’t come to America and be someone new! I got this role in a soap called Backstage. I played the super-bitch in the series. South Africans are really into their soaps; it is kind of a new thing in South Africa. And a lot of the time they struggle to differentiate between you and the character. My role was crazy. I gave it all I had and they loved it. It was three years ago and they still ask me, “When are you going back?”

AHHA: How did you get this role in Catch A Fire?

Bonnie: The producer of Drum, which was a film I did two years ago, happened to know the director and showed him the film to check out the talent. A few months later, when he came to do that location scout in South Africa, he decided to some interviews with the talent. I was sent the script and loved it, so the next day I did a reading. They then went to L.A. and London to do more auditions. In February the following year, they flew me to London for a final audition and I got the job.

AHHA: What is it like being an actor in South Africa? What is the entertainment industry like there?

Bonnie: Because Johannesburg is like the New York of Africa, it’s an aspiring Hollywood. It has the right energies. It has every type of people. There are the tabloids. There is the independent energy. More and more people are finding their unique place in it. It’s growing rapidly.

AHHA: Is it competitive?

Bonnie: It’s become very competitive. I was one of the first Black girls of my generation to be on television. I was 13. And I was one of the first to be quite experimental openly. I would shave my head bald or dye my hair platinum blonde. People thought I was crazy or on drugs. They don’t get shocked anymore!

AHHA: You are fabulous, but when people see this movie, and are introduced to you for the first time, they are going to be quite shocked with the way you look in the movie compared to the way you look in real life.

Bonnie: Oh yeah! I had to deal with that! I used to try sneak lip gloss into my costume pocket. I had to have conversations with myself. I was like, “Bonnie you are Precious. You are bringing all of it to this role. You can’t have a lip gloss issue!” I would fight it out with myself. I think it is very important that I stay true to every level of my character and eventually I would discipline myself. But I had to deal with it. The look was just totally not me. I’m glad it came at a time in my life when I was ready for that process. I understand what my art is about and what my purpose of it is, and this challenged me in many areas.