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Interview: Award-Winning Cinematographer, Writer & Director Ernest Dickerson, Reintroduced

Shadow and Act By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 15, 2014 at 4:22PM

The success and signature appeal of Spike Lee's early films have Ernest Dickerson's cinematography to thank as much as Spike's own cinematic flourishes. Dickerson's eye helped make a Spike Lee joint, a Spike Lee joint.For the distant observer, theirs seemed like a kind of symbiotic pairing that some of us believed would continue through much of their careers. What some of us didn't already realize was that directing was in Dickerson's future all along, supplanting any notions that he was a cinematographer first, and directing was something of a diversion, or a happy accident.It was neither. He always intended to become a director in his own right. Consider that he'd written the screenplay for Juice, what would become his directorial debut in 1992, some 8 years prior, before he'd begun to cement his reputation as a talented DP, who went on to shoot a number of films that aren't just black cinema classics, but cinema classics: John Sayles' The Brother From Another Planet, Krush Groove, and of course his collaborations with Spike Lee, including the seminal 1989 incendiary drama Do The Right Thing.It was the same year (1992) that his last director/DP collaboration with Lee (Malcolm X) was released, that Dickerson saw his directorial debut, 8 years in the making (the hip-hop film noir, Juice), also open in theaters - a film that, while not what would qualify as a blockbuster hit, did well enough (relative to budget) and went on to achieve cult appeal.And it was then that Dickerson's career as a director was launched.
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Ernest Dickerson
Ernest Dickerson

Editor's note: As 2014 begins, I'll be reposting some of our highlight published last year (2013). Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's a piece I originally published in March 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

The success and signature appeal of Spike Lee's early films have Ernest Dickerson's cinematography to thank as much as Spike's own cinematic flourishes. Dickerson's eye helped make a Spike Lee joint, a Spike Lee joint.

For the distant observer, theirs seemed like a kind of symbiotic pairing that some of us believed would continue through much of their careers. What some of us didn't already realize was that directing was in Dickerson's future all along, supplanting any notions that he was a cinematographer first, and directing was something of a diversion, or a happy accident.

It was neither. He always intended to become a director in his own right. Consider that he'd written the screenplay for Juice, what would become his directorial debut in 1992, some 8 years prior, before he'd begun to cement his reputation as a talented DP, who went on to shoot a number of films that aren't just black cinema classics, but cinema classics: John Sayles' The Brother From Another Planet, Krush Groove, and of course his collaborations with Spike Lee, including the seminal 1989 incendiary drama Do The Right Thing.

It was the same year (1992) that his last director/DP collaboration with Lee (Malcolm X) was released, that Dickerson saw his directorial debut, 8 years in the making (the hip-hop film noir, Juice), also open in theaters - a film that, while not what would qualify as a blockbuster hit, did well enough (relative to budget) and went on to achieve cult appeal.

And it was then that Dickerson's career as a director was launched.

Following Juice, he'd go on to helm several projects, not necessarily in the same vein as Juice, but a number of them delivering some seemingly deliberate, although not always obvious, social commentary/critique - from Surviving The Game, to Futuresport, to Good Fences, and even horror films like Tales From The Crypt: Demon knight and Bones.

As Dickerson told me during our interview, he's always been aware of cinema's power to teach, enlighten, and inspire, all the while still being a source of entertainment - something that was instilled in him while he studied under activist filmmaker (and member of the LA Rebellion movement) Haile Gerima, as an undergrad student at Howard University, before he would go on to NYU's Tisch School for his MFA, and become part of something of an east coast film movement all of its own.

Almost 30 years, and 14 feature films later, Dickerson resides on the west coast, in Los Angeles, the cinema Mecca of America; although it's been almost 10 years since he last directed a theatrically-released feature length film - 2004's Never Die Alone - much to his chagrin. It's certainly not due to a lack of ideas (he has several), but rather the age-old lack of financing dilemma that challenges many-a-filmmaker's dream.

Although Dickerson is certainly not deterred.

Directing for TV has provided him with all his employment opportunities over the last decade, helming episodes of countless hit serials like The Wire, CSI: Miami, ER, Dexter, Treme, and, of course, most recently, AMC's zombie blockbuster, The Walking Dead, as well as the pilot for a new AMC series, Low Winter Sun, bringing Dickerson back to working within his favorite genres: horror, thriller, along with science fiction, and action - all genres that, as he expressed, he'd love to see more black filmmakers explore more often.

But the unassuming Dickerson isn't exactly one for stump speeches or rallying cries, nor does he crave the spotlight. Ultimately it's all about the work and family for him. And at 61 years old, with roughly 30 years of industry experience, he's certainly assured of his abilities, and seems relatively comfortable with his accomplishments, and general station in life.

However, from our conversation, I got the impression that he's on the verge of a rebirth of sorts, as awareness of and appreciation for his abilities and accomplishments grow (in part due to the success of The Walking Dead, which he directed some of the most memorable episodes of), bringing him even closer to seeing a handful of intriguing completed screenplays realized on film.

It was about a month ago, that I spoke with Ernest Dickerson in a conversation that lasted about an hour, addressing a wide range of topics, from his years as an undergrad under Haile Gerima's tutelage, to his years working with Spike Lee, his transition to directing, being taken seriously as a director, the age of digital cinema, industry challenges faced, and much more.

A summary of that interview follows on the next page:

This article is related to: Ernest Dickerson


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