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

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 15, 2014 4:22 PM
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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.

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  • karen marie mason | January 16, 2014 2:49 PMReply

    Yes I agree Amin. Outstanding.

  • Amin | January 15, 2014 4:29 PMReply

    I love his filmmaking. Outstanding

  • Temi Olutunmbi | March 7, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    Great interview, very interesting responses from an exceptional talent in the film industry. Like others I hope he can achieve more recognition as well as funding for Octavia Butler adaptation.

  • Jason Gilmore | March 6, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    Great interview Tambay! Ernest's work as a DP & director is exceptional and it's great to hear him assess his career & process.

  • Teofilo Colon Jr | March 6, 2013 8:13 PMReply

    Ernest Dickerson's warning about the digital format not lasting very long (relatively speaking) is something I wish more people would consider.

    Teofilo Colon Jr.
    Being Garifuna

  • Joe Doughrity | March 6, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    Thank you sooooo much for this great piece Tambay! An amazing, revealing chat with one of my idols. Your work is appreciated and I look forward to more work by Ernest Dickerson in film and TV.

  • Julius | March 6, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    Chameleon Street!!!

  • Dankwa Brooks | March 5, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    Another great interview Mr. Obenson! Excellent as matter of fact!

    Mr. Dickerson kicks realities on what if really means to be a known filmmaker and still trying to get films made. He also echoes what I feel that black filmmakers should propagate diverse images through ALL genres. Just make it good!

  • Donella | March 5, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    Dickerson pretty much defined the 90s. Juice is very much overlooked. Anyone who can handle the blaze off Tupac's fire knows what he's doing.

  • urbanauteur | March 5, 2013 12:49 PMReply


  • Arch | March 5, 2013 11:49 AMReply

    I really was looking forward to read this since you teased it last month or so ... thanks.

  • Sergio | March 5, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    Terrific interview!

  • Micah | March 5, 2013 4:11 AMReply

    Did anyone else notice the episodes that Michonne gets the best treatment in the Walking Dead are the episodes he directed? Just saying. This man has an enviable career. I hope that he gets the recognition and platform he deserves. He's definitely a hero of mine.

  • gate | March 4, 2013 11:31 PMReply

    Ernest is the man. Period.

  • lamontpierre | March 4, 2013 10:45 PMReply

    insightful and educational interview. much appreciation for his thoughts on us filmmakers diversifying and widening our approach to telling stories and crafting good cinema that is timeless. very interesting thoughts about digital as well.

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