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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson 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.

TO: You mentioned filmmakers and visual storytellers whose work inspires you; I'm wondering who those were for you - not today, but rather as a young up-and-comer when you were getting started in the 80s, and if the names have changed over time.

ED: Let's see, coming up, there was Orson Welles. I think he's a god. Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, and I've picked up some others as I've gotten older, like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. I think these are filmmakers that are really excellent visual stylists, and people who continue to inspire me. There's also Ang Lee. I love Ang Lee's films. He even went to NYU. He was there when I was there. I love Quentin Tarantino's work. I think he's an excellent writer. There are others; there are people whom I continuously discover as I work.

TO: You seem to be drawn to certain genres like horror, thriller, crime, action. Is it fair to say that those are your favorite genres to work in, or are you interested in working in just about any genre?

ED: I like unusual stories, you know. I'm not the kinda guy to do a romantic comedy. The older I've gotten, the more I've embraced more off-the-wall genres. And I love when you take a few different genres and mix them all together. Yeah, I'm mostly drawn to thrillers. My first film, Juice, was a film noir, even though some may not look at it that way. But that was my approach to it. Even though it was set in the hip hop world, it was still a film noir in which the protagonists were these teenage, young black men. I've always liked taking a genre and kind of twisting it around, or turning it on its head.

TO: People know who you are, but they don't really know who you are, if that makes sense. You kind of live a relatively low key, private life, and you just seem to be all about the work and you're not interested in drawing any attention to yourself, or getting caught up in some kind of controversy. Is that by design, or just the way you are generally and the way it is with you?

ED: Well if people ask for my opinion on something I'll definitely give it to them. But do I seek the limelight? No. I like to just do the work and go home you know. I've got a family. I've got 5 kids. And I'm pretty much a homebody. I don't really go to lots of parties much. My lady and I love to go out and watch a live jazz show, you know, go to the movies, but I guess I'm a pretty private guy.

TO: Have you benefited from The Walking Dead's success? You directed 7 or 8 episodes of it since it started, and those were some of the most memorable episodes. And it's become a worldwide phenomenon now. Do people instantly know you now, especially within the industry? Is that spilling over into your own career?

ED: Yeah, I guess it's become easier for people to take me more seriously as a director (laughter). Walking Dead did very well for AMC, and then, because of that, I went on to do the pilot for Low Winter Sun also with AMC. And they greenlit that to series. So that's good. But, I guess it's helped my career. It's just hard to say right now. It's not like I just suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I've always been constantly working to find more work, and I've always been taking meetings, even before Walking Dead. Like I said, it's been an ongoing thing. But, there are still a couple of personal projects that I'm still trying to get made, as I said before. So, how much has that helped my career right now? But it took 8 years to get Juice made so, that's the nature of the business and it's just gotten harder since then.

TO: Does the fact that you're a black man influence the choices available to you, or, instead, what you have control over, as in the choices that you make as filmmaker? Are you a filmmaker first, and a black man second? Or a black man first, and a filmmaker second? Or do they just co-exist and you don't even really think about that?
ED: I think they kind of co-exist. A lot of the time I don't even think about it, but a lot of the material that I'm trying to do are adaptations of African American or even African-Canadian material. Definitely black material. There are a couple of black science fiction writers whose works I'm trying to bring to the screen. So a lot of the stuff that I'm looking at is definitely black oriented. Some of the stuff that I'm writing is definitely black oriented. Some of it isn't race-specific. So there's a range.

TO: Because there's an ongoing conversation that comes up often about this so-called "burden of representation." There are some black folks in the business who embrace that and say that they are representative of an under-represented group of people, and are very specific about what they do. And there are those who say they do what they do for themselves and their families, and aren't representative of an entire race of people.

ED: I'd say that I do represent, but it's not something that I carry with me every single day. For example, I'm getting ready to head down to Howard University to do a week-long seminar, because I want to give back. Howard is my undergrad Alma mater, and they asked me to come down for a week, and I'm really, really glad to do that. Because I'm hoping that my experience will help other young black filmmakers. So, all that said, I'd like to do all kinds of projects. I'm not going to take a project just because it's a black project. If the material is something that really moves and touches me, and it's something I feel that I can really do something with, then yeah I'm definitely going to go for it.

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