Actor, director Charles Dutton left behind prison life for stage, screen career


I don’t know ’bout ya’ll, but back in the late 1990s I remember Sunday nights was a treat for me and my family, ’cause that was the day that FOX Television aired the sketch comedy In Living Color and then back-doored it with the sitcom Roc.

I loved watching Roc, starring Charles S. Dutton and Ella Joyce; it was a realistic portrayal of a working-class family struggling each week to stay afloat. They weren’t poor as dirt like Florida and James on Good Times, but they weren’t rich and out of reach like Cliff and Claire on The Cosby Show.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Charles S. Dutton (CSD) on the small screen. Well, all that’s about to change, ’cause brother man is directing and starring in a new movie on Lifetime. He sat down recently and talked to me about it…

MSR: It is so good to see you in a new project. Tell me about your new movie.

CSD: Well, its call Racing for Time on the Lifetime Network, and it airs during February in honor of Black History Month.

It’s a story of young girls who are in a juvenile prison with a lot of racial strife and a lot of gang activity. In comes this prison guard who decides to take all the ringleaders of the gangs and put them in a running program. He taught them to run the four-by-100 [meter] relay. Through teamwork and discipline, their lives and mentality started changing for the better.

It’s a true, uplifting story filled with messages not just about girls in prison, but also about people getting involved.

MSR: You went from acting to directing just like Denzel did in The Great Debaters.

CSD: If this were a movie about young boys, I would have passed on it. We’ve seen that story on related topics. But because it was about young girls and young women, I wanted to shed some light on the situations they face. There are not a lot of rehabilitative services for these women in these institutions, so it’s time for society to take a look at what’s going on in those joints and do something about it.

MSR: Why directing, though? It seems like a lot of work.

CSD: It’s a natural progression for actors. Directing is tough. Acting is [the] easiest money anybody will ever make. You become a spoiled brat as an actor. Directing is like washing a battleship with a Q-tip, because if a movie is successful, [the] studio gets all the credit. If it’s a flop, the director gets the blame.

MSR: Okay, I know you get tired of telling your story, but it’s so remarkable. You gotta tell it to me ’cause I wanna hear it come out of your mouth.

CSD: It’s been around a while. It’s an old story, but from the time I was 12 years old [until I was] 26, I had been in and out of prison. I started acting in 1972 in Maryland State Prison, and that changed my life. And when I was doing that play, I had just discovered what I was born to do while I was on this planet; and I pursued it to the absolute fullest.

I left prison and went to the Yale School of Drama. It was a lot of hard work and discipline, and it was a lot of temptation to blow it. I was still living in the same community and dealing with the same peer pressure, but I made my way through it and went to Yale.

When I graduated from Yale, I was starring on Broadway in the late August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

MSR: I have a cousin, William. Smart boy, but he’s in prison in Texas. You remind me of him. What advice would you give him? I want so badly for him to turn his life around.

CSD: Well, you know… I simply saw my life and what it could be instead of in the penitentiary — instead of being negative. Since I was already overly experienced in prison and gang life, I figured there had to be something on the other side. I made the leap in time not to be in prison when I’m 45 or 50 years old, thinking about what it would have been. I changed when I was 20 years old.

You can do anything you want. Anything you dream of, you can achieve it. It’s simply not going to be easy; nobody is going to give it to you. You have to discipline yourself to persevere and sustain to achieve something — not just one goal; I’m talking about your entire life. And if you don’t wanna change and you just wanna play around with it, move out of the way and let someone else who wants to do right get in front and don’t waste people’s time.

So to a lot of young guys, its about know[ing] what you want to do with your life at 17, 18 and 19 years old and doing it now. And start really listening to adults and positive people who are showing you the right way and not the wrong way, ’cause when you’ve messed up and you’re 35 in the penitentiary it is absolutely too late.

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