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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.
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TO: Going back to the 1980s, on the west coast there was the La Rebellion movement already happening, with Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and others. I don't think I ever heard or read of whether or not you guys were ever aware of each other (the east coast and the west coast), and if there was ever any interest in a meeting of the minds, or even just an awareness that what was going on, on and from both coasts, and if there were any collaborations or even thoughts of collaborations, since the LA Rebellion ran into the mid-to-late 80s or so, and we could maybe even say that you guys on the east were part of your own kind of rebellion.

ED: Well, I knew Haile from Howard. When I was a Howard undergrad, I took a class with Haile, even though I wasn't a film major, I was interested in film. So, yes, I knew about the movement. By the time I got into film, Haile was already an established professor at Howard university. And a lot of what I first learned about film, I got from Haile. The first cinematography class I took was taught by a gentleman named Roland Mitchell, who was also teaching at Howard. So, I knew of Haile's work. I saw Bush Mama and Harvest: 3,000 Years, and some of his other earlier films. But I can't say that we, on the east coast, had a definite movement, because there weren't that many of us at NYU. We were just trying to figure out how to get our films made, and I don't think there were enough of us to have a movement [laughter].
TO: I'm thinking of Charles Burnett for example, and Killer Of Sheep. Even though it was made in the late 1970s, it didn't really get distribution and the kind of release it deserved until later. So I'm wondering if say you and Spike, for example, saw it back in the early 80s at NYU, and were excited or inspired by it, since, at that time, you guys were just kind of getting started.
ED: Yeah, Killer of Sheep is an excellent film. Yeah, we knew of Charles Burnett's work. But he did that film before we even got into the graduate film program at NYU. The same thing with many of Haile's early films. My first studies in film were under Haile Gerima. He's been one of my mentors.

TO: I ask that question partly because, for filmmakers from my generation and younger, there's been this suggestion I've heard repeatedly that we don't have an awareness of the filmmakers that came before us, an awareness and appreciation for film history, and a respect for those past filmmakers and films...

ED: This is true. I find a lot of many young filmmakers today don't really know very much film history. Let alone African American film history. But a film that really made me want to make movies was Larry Clark's Passing Through. It was just such a beautiful film. But knowing people and learning under people like Haile and Roland Mitchell really helped make we want to go into film anyway.  So for me, they were very inspirational. I think I learned what films should be. That it's not just entertainment, and you're definitely making a statement. And there are a lot of different ways of doing that. I learned to take the craft of filmmaking very seriously by listening to and watching the films of the more experienced filmmakers, because we do have some responsibility because the image is very powerful.
TO: Are you a film purist, or have you given in and embraced the so-called digital revolution that we're living through?

ED: Uhh... Well, it is the future. I can't deny that. I wish we could do both. I'd like to be able to shoot film and digital but... the great thing about digital is that it has made film more accessible to more people. And I think it's really been a boon for the independent market. But the main problem with digital is that it's not archival. 
TO: What do you mean by that exactly?

ED: It doesn't last. Right now, digital will fade. It won't last as long as film. The only way to prevent any kind of digital material from fading away is to keep migrating it, to keep moving it to another medium. So the initial cost you save upfront, you're likely going to have to pay that cost later on, when you have to keep migrating it from one form to another. It's not archival. I think that's the main challenge in the digital world right now, is trying to make digital material last. There's digital material that we shot during 9/11 that's already gone. I read that some of the original digital files for Toy Story 2 are gone. Most digital material that's shot today, probably won't be here 20 years from now. Unless maybe if it's put on film.

TO: Interesting. I'm not sure if that's something that's widely-known. I think folks are just caught up in the "revolution" and aren't thinking that far ahead, since the process has become so much more accessible to everyone, and anyone with a camera thinks they're a filmmaker nowadays so...

ED: Film lasts longer than digital. That's one of the problems that we're confronting at the ASC (American Society Of Cinematographers_. We have meetings on this stuff all the time. I guess it's something that a lot of people don't know about. But digital does not last. Everyone with a camera thinks that they can shoot a film, but what happens in 20 years when it fades away. I think the best way to preserve digital is to transfer it to film. 
TO: So then why is there this big push to digital, if there's this big elephant in the room that's not being addressed?

ED: It's obviously not something that's talked about a lot. But at the ASC meetings, we talk about it all the time. That's one of the things that the digital manufacturers have to really confront - how to make digital material last longer. Because it's not archival.

This article is related to: Ernest Dickerson


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