Dickerson, Ernest R. 1952–
Ernest R. Dickerson 1952–
Film director, cinematographer
While cinematography—the art of motion picture photography—is often seen as a lesser ingredient in filmmaking behind acting, writing, and directing, some names emerge into the forefront by virtue of their talent, innovation, and individual style. Ernest Dickerson is one such example. Long regarded as former NYU-classmate Spike Lee’s exclusive cinematographer, Dickerson struck out on his own in 1991 and assumed the director’s chair for the controversial film, Juice. To date, Dickerson has four films under his belt as director with no signs of stopping. Whether he’ll shoot again for Lee remains questionable, although Lee was well prepared for that outcome. “I knew there would come a day where he would not be able to shoot my films,” Lee admitted to Sally Weltman of Premiere. “’Cause I always knew he would end up directing. In school, Ernest had the best films. This is what he’s wanted to do all along.”
Born and raised in the Newark, New Jersey housing projects, Dickerson was the only child of an A&P grocery store manager and his librarian wife. Following the death of his father when he was eight, Dickerson found solace in the neighborhood movie theaters and was particularly struck by the 1948 film Oliver Twist by famed British director, David Lean. “That was the first film that made me realize that films are photography,” Dickerson told Nick Ravo of the New York Times. Although his newfound interest in film was strong, Dickerson never thought he could make a career out of it and instead chose to pursue architecture.
Dickerson attended Howard University where his love for photography and film flourished amidst the many film institutes and revival houses in the Washington D.C. area. Although his major was architecture, he took a number of photo and film classes and began to work as a photographer for the school newspaper. Upon graduation Dickerson landed a job photographing medical procedures at the university’s medical school which allowed him to stay in the Washington area to see and study all those movies. “And I think it was then that I started thinking a lot more seriously about film,” Dickerson admitted to Kari Granville of the Los Angeles Times. “I saw that’s the way I’d really love to spend the rest of my life—making movies.” After photographing
At a Glance…
Born c. 1952 in Newark, NJ; married twice, second wife, Traci; children: Janet, born 1984; Ernest, III, born 1991. Education: B.A. in architecture from Howard University; graduate studies, New York University Film School.
Career; Film director and cinematographer; worked as medical photographer at Howard University School; directed and/or photographed student films at New York University, including Spike Lee’s Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, 1980, Served as cinematographer on feature films The Brother from Another Planet, 1984; Almacita di Delolata and /Crush Groove, 1985; She’s Gotta Have It, 1986; Enemy Territory and Eddie Murphy Raw, 1987; School Daze, Vampires, and The Laser Man, 1988; Do The Right Thing, 1989; Def By Temptation, Ava and Gabriel: Un Historia di Amor, and Mo’Better Blues, 1990; Jungle Fever and Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, 1991; Cousin Bobby (documentary) and Malcolm X, 1992. Photographed television series Tales from the Darkside and Law and Order, 1990; filmed music videos for Anita Baker, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, the Neville Brothers, and others; directed television special Spike and Co.: Do It A Capella, 1990 for PBS’s Great Performances series; directed television commercials, 1991-; co-writer and director of Juice, 1992; founded Original Film, a bi-coastal company formed to produce television commercials and public service announcements, 1992; directed Surviving the Game, 1993; Demon Knight, 1995; Bulletproof, 1996; Blind Faith, 1998.
Member: American Society of Cinematographers
Selected awards: New York Film Critics Award for cinematography for Do The Right Thing, 1989.
Addresses: Agent—Scott Yoselow, The Gersh Agency, 232 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
an amputation procedure proved too much for Dicker-son, he decided to follow his dream and went off to attend New York University’s film school. Here he became fast friends and a working partner with another classmate in the graduate program-Spike Lee.
“Ernest and I were in the same class,” Lee reminisced to Nelson George in the book, Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It. “We came in together. He was from Howard. I was from Morehouse…. We were the only blacks at NYU.” Dickerson was cinematographer on Lee’s first student film, Sarah, and later, Lee’s thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won Lee a Student Academy Award. Dickerson’s cinematography on Joe’s was noticed by independent film director John Sayles, who drafted him to shoot what would be Dickerson’s first professional feature film, The Brother From Another Planet, in 1983. “I lied when he asked me if I had ever shot 35-millimeter before,” Dickerson confessed to Nick Ravo of the New York Times. “I figured a camera is a camera. All the camera is is a recording device. You have got to see it first in your mind’s eye, manipulate the image to make it look like it does in your head.” Dickerson then went on to shoot the television series Tales From the Darkside and Michael Schultz’s 1985 rap musical, Krush Groove.
In 1986 Dickerson began his long career as Spike Lee’s director of photography in Lee’s feature film debut, She’s Gotta Have It. Filmed in black and white, Dickerson’s imaginative camera work helped put Lee on the filmmaking map. Dickerson also helped Lee as a director when Lee was on screen in the role of Mars Blackmon. “Spike knows what he wants,” Dickerson told Ravo. “But there have been times when he was so involved in acting, producing and casting that he wasn’t able to design sequences and he left them up to me—a pretty big responsibility for a cinematographer.” Lee said as much to Nelson George in Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It. “There was a problem at the beginning of the shoot when I was in front of the camera,” Lee said. “I was divided. I was still playing the role of the director and I was saying, ‘OK, everybody. Sound. Roll sound. Camera. Action.’ Then I was acting. And this wasn’t working. So the gaffer, Mike Hunold—a good friend of ours who went to NYU—said, “Let’s just try this: Let’s leave all that stuff to Ernie.’ I said fine, and everything went smoothly after that. When I was in front of the camera all I had to worry about was Mars Blackmon and Ernest was the director.”
In between Spike Lee films, Dickerson kept himself busy by shooting Eddie Murphy Raw for director Robert Townsend and Peter Manoogian’s suspense film Enemy Territory. In 1988 he worked again with Lee on the campus comedy School Daze followed a year later by the controversial and widely acclaimed Do the Right Thing. Among the many highly regarded aspects of the film was Dickerson’s vibrant color cinematography. As David Mills of the Washington Post said, saturating the screen “in yellows and reds so the audience feels, feels the heat of a Brooklyn summer.” Dickerson won the New York Film Critics Award for best cinematography for his efforts and along with a recommendation from Martin Scorsese, was tapped by director John Mc-Naughton to shoot Eric Bogosian’s performance film, Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. This coincided with two other Lee films; the moody jazz piece, Mo’ Better Blues, and the bittersweet interracial love story, Jungle Fever. In addition, Dickerson was cinematographer on a number of music videos for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Anita Baker, and the Neville Brothers.
All the while, Dickerson was looking for an opportunity to direct his own film, an eight year-old script co-written with Gerard Brown, entitled Juice. It told the tale of four young black men in the Harlem section of New York City growing up in the violence of the urban ghetto and doing whatever they can in order to get power and respect, or “juice” as it’s known on the streets. For years the script had been shown to various studios who wanted Dicker-son to lighten it up and turn it into a comedy. Dickerson refused. “I had very specific ideas of what I wanted the story to say and how I wanted it to be said,” Dickerson told Granville of the Los Angeles Times. “I wrote it to be a piece for me to debut as a director…. I wanted to do something that dealt with coming of age and the hard choices teen-agers had to make and about the forces that sometimes push young men into making the wrong choices.”
The rise of popularity of Lee’s films and other films aimed at a black audience such as Boyz in the Hood and New Jack City ensured a climate that allowed Dicker-son to make the movie he wanted to. “It’s a good thing, too,” Dickerson declared to Deborah Gregory of Entertainment Weekly. “Because there’san untapped wealth of black stories, and now some of them will finally get told.” The new found freedom for Black filmmakers, however, arrived with negative implications. Violence began to erupt at screenings of Black oriented films and Juice was no exception. Following its release in 1992, Dickerson found himself and his movie being discussed more for the violence that surrounded it rather than its merits as a film to the point where Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor, provided extra security at theaters where the movie was screened.
With a budget of $3 million, Juice went on to gross more than $30 million making it a commercial success although reviews were decidedly mixed. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that while the story idea was far from original, the execution worked “thanks to natural, affecting performances from the principals and a very sharp visual style.” Leah Rozen of People, echoed these sentiments, calling Juice a commendable initial effort but “excessively limited in its reach and its characters.” Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly was the most positive professing Dickerson as having “instantly arrived at the forefront of the new wave of black directors. His film aims for the gut, and hits it.”
Immediately following the release of Juice, Dickerson was back behind Spike Lee’s camera for the director’s epic biopic, Malcolm X. The two came up with the idea of using colors in order to emphasize certain parts of Malcolm X’s life. “What we wanted to do was use color and light to express the different mood’s of Malcolm’s life, the four parts of the film,” Dickerson wrote in Spike Lee’s By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X. David Ansen of Newsweek described Dickerson as “brilliant” in how he and Lee “accentuate the radical disjunctions of Malcolm’s odyssey by finding a distinct visual style for each of the key episodes of his life.”
For his next film as a director, Dickerson had planned to make a science fiction film he wrote entitled Future Crimes, but failed to find a studio who would back him. Instead, he returned to work on music videos and joined the staff of Original Films, a production company that makes commercials and public service announcements. Still, Dickerson chose to concentrate on directing instead of trying to duplicate the his previous success as a cinematographer. “Cinematography is a craft that sometimes rises to the level of art, depending on the subject matter and what you’re able to do with it,” Dickerson explained to Granville of the Los Angeles Times. “As a cinematographer I’m able to paint. It allows me to try to express the emotions of a story, through color and camera angles and lighting, light and shade. Being the director, I’m not as concerned with that as much as I am with telling the story with the actors.” While he was sent scripts by various studios, he chose to wait for one that would appeal to his sense of storytelling. In choosing Surviving the Game however, most reviewers felt he should have kept on waiting.
An action thriller starring rapper/actor Ice-T as a homeless man unknowingly hired to be the prey of six wealthy hunters, 1994’s Surviving the Game, did not do well at the box office after receiving many lackluster reviews. “Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson doesn’t live up to the promise of his directing debut, Juice, with this thread-bare chase movie, which almost makes surviving the screening its own endurance test,” Brian Lowry wrote in Variety. Janet Maslin of the New York Times also mentioned Juice, in that Dickerson’s first film at least had a sense of place while Surviving the Game meanders through the wilderness which didn’t suit the action. “More damagingly,” Maslin wrote, “Mr. Dickerson does nothing to keep his cast from chewing up the mountain scenery.” Owen Glieberman, writing for Entertainment Weekly contended that except for a few moments, “Dickerson doesn’t do much to revitalize the apocalyptic cliches of the heavy-duty-action genre.”
Faring a little better, but not by much, was Dickerson’s next film, 1995’s Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight. Based on the HBO series and 1950’s comic book, Demon Knight aimed to be a gruesome, yet comical live-action cartoon, which on some levels at least, succeeded. “Gruesome, garish and smutty in a very juvenile way,” Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today wrote, “Knight…nonetheless is often frightfully engaging, thanks to a game group of performers and visually electric direction from Ernest Dickerson.” Most of the criticism revolved around the script-which Dickerson did not write. “There’s not much effort to make anything about the story persuasive or compelling,” Los Angeles Times reviewer David Kronke wrote, adding, “[Dicker-son’s] work is competent, though he doesn’t provide the kind of jolts a movie like this needs to keep audiences engaged.” Stephen Holden of the New York Times countered that what the film does best is “sustain a look and tone that bring a comic-book’s broad strokes into the realm of a live-action movie without seeming too mannered or arty.”
Dickerson’s next film, 1996’s Bulletproof, received his worst reviews yet. A buddy comedy starring comedians Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler, Dickerson inparticular was assailed for falling so far from his once brilliant status as a gifted cinematographer. “Bulletproof is both offensive and depressing,” Mike Clark of USA Today wrote, “from its sociopathic mix of graphic violence and slapstick to its severe career blighting of the once-formidable Ernest Dickerson.” Clark went so far as to devote the last paragraph of his review bemoaning that Dickerson was becoming a “great cinematographer who has opted to become a mediocre or worse filmmaker.” Christine Spines of Premiere agreed saying what a pity it was that “Spike Lee’s brilliant cinematographer” was turning all his “visual razzle-dazzle into a shtickfest.”
Dickerson followed the ill-received comedy with Blind Faith, a drama set in the fifties about a black family whose son is accused of murdering a white youth. Although the film did well at 1998’s Sundance Film Festival and was shown on the cable network, Showtime, it had not secured a theatrical release, much to Dicker-son’s disappointment. “A lot of companies feel that black films that have done well have been family dramas with a feel-good happy ending,” he explained to Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times. “But that’s not life. They have to realize that the African American experience is not all happy endings.”
Still, with all the critical and distribution problems Dickerson endures as a director, he continues his focus, even turning down such prestigious cinematography assignments as Batman Forever. His photographic eye continues to guide his decisions as a director, however. “To my mind, the camera placement and lighting can help to tell as much of the story as the script,” he told Weinraub. “Photography is, after all, writing with light, telling the story with pictures…. Films are an experience; it’s not a neutral but a visceral medium. That’s what I try to convey.”
George, Nelson, Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies, Harper Collins, 1994.
Guerrero, Ed, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Temple University Press, 1993.
Kendall, Steven D., New Jack Cinema: Hollywood’s African American Filmmakers, J.L. Denser, Inc., 1994.
Lee, Spike, Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking, Fireside, 1987.
Lee, Spike with Ralph Wiley, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, Hyperion, 1992.
Back Stage, March 20, 1992, p. 1; July 24, 1992, p.6.
Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 1992, p. 13.
Entertainment Weekly, January 24, 1992, pp. 36, 39; July 31, 1992, p. 66; April 29, 1994, p. 54; September 20, 1996, p. 50.
Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1991, (Calendar) p. 3; January 13, 1995, p. F-1.
New York Times, January 17, 1992, p. C-10; January 22.1992, p. C-13; February 4, 1992, p. A-20; April 18.1993, p. B-14; April 16, 1994, p. A-11; January 13, 1995, p. C-20; January 30, 1998, p. E-10.
Newsweek, January 27, 1992, p. 63; November 16, 1992, p. 74.
People Weekly, January 27, 1992, p. 19; May 2, 1994, p. 18; January 30, 1995, p. 17.
Premiere, February 1992, p. 40; November 1992, p. 88; September 1996, p. 16.
USA Today, January 13, 1992, p. D-1; January 13, 1995, p. D-4; September 6, 1996, p. D-3.
Variety, April 25, 1994.
Washington Post, January 17, 1992, p. C-1.
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Dickerson, Ernest 1952(?)–
Ernest Dickerson 1952(?)–
Film director, cinematographer
“All the camera is is a recording device,” Ernest Dickerson told Nick Ravo of the New York Times. “You have got to see it [the image] first in your mind’s eye, [then] manipulate the image to make it look like it does in your head.” Dickerson’s ability to effect this transformation—turning ideas into cinematic moments—has made him one of the most respected contemporary cinematographers in the United States. His work for a number of demanding and creative directors, most notably Spike Lee, has earned him considerable acclaim. This would be impressive enough for anyone in the field, but Dickerson has attracted additional attention because, as the Times noted, he was, as of mid-1993, “the youngest member of the American Society of Cinematographers and the only black.” In 1992 Dickerson moved into the director’s chair himself with the feature Juice. While the film’s reception was mixed, Dickerson showed himself to be an accomplished stylist. “Dickerson has more than skill as a director,” opined Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers. “He has potential.”
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Dickerson grew up in the city’s housing projects. Always a movie fan, he only became aware of the art of cinematography after seeing David Lean’s classic 1948 film of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. “That was the film that made me realize that films are photography,” Dickerson told the New York Times. As he recalled to Premiere’s Fannie Weinstein, “It wasn’t the sets; it was the shadows and textures and angles.” Viewing the films of British suspense master Alfred Hitchcock—one of the most influential directors of the modern era—also pushed him toward the medium.
Nonetheless, he initially chose what seemed a more practical career path: architecture. This was to be his major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., though he found himself in cinematography classes before he graduated. In an interview with Kari Granville of the Los Angeles Times, his college friend and eventual writing partner Gerard Brown discussed Dickerson’s talent as a photographer during their Howard days: “He was always messing around with the camera, taking pictures of his girlfriend or me or his other friends, and you could see then he had a great eye.”
The architectural world offered Dickerson few immediate opportunities. He remained in Washington, frequenting its many movie houses and working as a medical photographer,
At a Glance…
Born C 1952 in Newark, NJ; married; two children, born 1988 and 1992. Education: B.A. in architecture from Howard University; also attended New York University Film School.
Cinematographer and director; worked as medical photographer at Howard University Medical School; directed and/or photographed student films at New York University, including Spike Lee’s Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Served as cinematographer on feature films The Brother from Another Planet; Krush Groove; She’s Gotta Have It; School Daze; Do the Right Thing; Eddie Murphy Raw; Mo’ Better Blues; Jungle Fever; Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll; and Malcolm X, 1982-92. Worked on television series Tales from the Darkside; shot music videos for Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, the Neville Brothers, and others, throughout the 1980s; directed television special Spike and Company: Do It A Capella, 1990; directed various television commercials, 1991—; cowriter and director of feature Juice, 1992; director, Surviving the Game, 1993.
Member: American Society of Cinematographers.
Selected awards: New York Film Critics Award for cinematography for Do the Right Thing.
Addresses: Home —Connecticut. Production company—(Surviving the Game) New Line Cinema, 116 N. Robertson, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
though the gruesome task of shooting footage of amputations at Howard’s medical school soon got the better of him. “After about eight of those, it really started getting to me,” he admitted to Premiere’s Weinstein. He decided to enroll in the film school at New York University. It was there that he met Spike Lee. Dickerson later became Lee’s director of photography, serving first as cinematographer on his award-winning student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, in addition to helming his own projects. “In school,” Lee told Premiere, “Ernest had the best films.”
Among those who viewed Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop was maverick director John Sayles, who hired Dickerson as cinematographer on his 1984 feature The Brother from Another Planet. The low-budget film was Dickerson’s first major professional work after film school; filmed in a few weeks on a paltry budget, it proved the resourcefulness of both director and cinematographer. “On a low budget,” Sayles told Premiere, “the equation that you look for in a cinematographer is how good they are divided by how fast they are. And Ernest’s stuff was consistently good.” Dickerson admitted years later to the New York Times: “I lied when he [Sayles] asked me if I had ever shot 35-millimeter before”—referring to the industry’s standard film size, as opposed to the less expensive 16-millimeter format favored in film schools— “I figured a camera is a camera.” He soon worked on the television series Tales from the Darkside and the 1985 Michael Schultz film Krush Groove.
It was Dickerson’s work with Lee, however, that most effectively showcased his talents. From the time of Lee’s breakthrough comedy She’s Gotta Have It, Dickerson’s talent for evocative camerawork shined through. That film’s low budget and mostly amateur cast couldn’t conceal the imaginative energy of its creators; the black-and-white sex comedy contains a brief color interlude that refers cheekily to The Wizard of Oz. Dickerson’s artful sense of movement and light helped flesh out Lee’s distinctive vision. As the director told Premiere, he and Dickerson had “developed a sort of shorthand where a lot of times we know exactly what the other is thinking.” Indeed, Lee reflected in an earlier interview with the magazine, “I’d feel really insecure if Ernest wasn’t behind the camera for me. A lot of directors of photography can’t bring you anything—all they do is shoot. He gives you creative input.”
Part of the “input” Dickerson provided took the form of storyboards—cartoon sketches of the action to be filmed—which evolved naturally out of his study of architecture. He informed Weinstein of Premiere that he modeled the dance sequences in Lee’s sophomore effort—the campus musical School Daze —on such classic musicals as An American in Paris, in which “the takes are long and fluid. The camera moves with the dancers. The rhythm comes from the music and the dancing, not so much from the editing.” Lee enlisted Dickerson to design the climactic fight sequence in his breakthrough 1988 drama Do the Right Thing. “I set up shots for that whole thing,” the cameraman told Ravo of the New York Times. “Spike said, ‘I don’t have the time to do it. Take it. Work it out for me.’” Soon his peers in the film world began to recognize Dickerson’s achievements: he snagged the New York Film Critics Award for cinematography for Do the Right Thing. Respected cinematographer Allen Daviau, who shot such popular films as E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial and The Color Purple, told the New York Times that he had “never seen such consistently daring work” as Dickerson’s, adding, “he is one of the cinematographers I respect the most.”
In addition to his collaborations with Lee, Dickerson worked behind the camera on the concert film Eddie Murphy Raw and the Eric Bogosian performance Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll. John McNaughton, who directed the Bogosian film, tapped Dickerson after a recommendation from esteemed filmmaker Martin Scorsese and a look at Do the Right Thing. Dickerson also shot videos by rocker Bruce Springsteen, jazz legend Miles Davis, and R&B heroes the Neville Brothers. While working on these many projects, he was also nursing something of his own: a script he began developing in the early 1980s with Gerard Brown. It was a long process, developing this story about black kids struggling to survive the streets. And once it was written, it took some time before anyone in the film world would consider backing it. “I didn’t get any encouragement,” he recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “My agent at the time never gave me any positive feedback.” Of course, this lack of encouragement preceded the boom in black filmmaking spearheaded by Spike Lee’s success.
Meanwhile, Dickerson worked on more Lee projects, developing his palette in the moody jazz tale Mo’ Better Blues and the interracial romance Jungle Fever with what Ravo of the New York Times called “vibrant and stylish cinematography.” In 1990 he directed a television special, Spike and Company: Do It A Capella, starring Lee and written by Brown; the program aired on public television. But it was in 1991 that he finally began work on the project he and Brown had developed earlier. The film, called Juice, featured Dickerson in the director’s chair. “I wanted to do something that dealt with coming of age and the hard choices teen-agers had to make and about the forces that sometimes push young men into making the wrong choices,” he reflected to Los Angeles Times reporter Granville. Taking its title from the term for credibility and respect on the streets, Juice is set in Harlem. Dickerson knew better than to stretch himself too thin: he hired Larry Banks, who had worked as his gaffer, to be his cinematographer. “I think every film should have its own look, and as a director I can set it in the right course,” he said, “and then I have to step back and allow my cinematographer room to express himself.”
The film was released in early 1992 to mixed reviews and some unfortunate violence in theaters. Regarding the latter, New York Times critic Janet Maslin defended Juice against those who blamed it for the incidents, noting that it “conveys a vivid sense of the temptations its characters try to resist” but ultimately trumpets an anti-violence message. Reviews of the film were mixed. Variety dubbed it a “technically superior, narratively flawed directorial debut.” Rolling Stone’s Travers remarked on Dickerson’s “potential” and ability to “draw bracing performances” from his young cast but noted that he “hasn’t yet developed a unique personal style” and “sometimes gets didactic.” Dimitri Ehrlich of Interview found the film “a realistic and subtle examination of young black men struggling to maintain dignity in the face of systematic disempowerment.” The reference book MagilL’s Cinema Annual, however, heaped praise on Juice’s purely cinematic virtues, emphasizing the “pure classical balance” of Dickerson’s frame design—that is, his organization of the shot within the film frame.
While waiting for Juice to be released, Dickerson worked again as Lee’s cinematographer, this time on the epic historical drama Malcolm X. Dickerson explained to Premiere that his technical approach followed the path of the activist’s experience: “We’re using color and light to accentuate the different moods of Malcolm’s life. Before prison is warmer, more idealized. Prison is very blue, very cold.” For the later years, “no filtration, the light is hard and clear, as he is Malcolm X. The Spokesman. Then, toward the end, in Mecca, when he makes yet another conversion, the clarity is softened—we’re trying for a look, then showing an awareness of knowledge.” Newsweek, reviewing the film, referred to Dickerson as “brilliant.”
In 1992 Dickerson also signed on with Original Film, a commercial production company; having shot a number of Lee’s commercials for Nike and Levi’s, he became an ideal candidate for directing commercials himself. One of his spots, a General Tires ad, ran into difficulty when it poked fun at New York with somewhat grittier images than many critics—including then-mayor David Dinkins—could accept. Dickerson, however, insisted that since most of his critics had heard about the spot secondhand, they shouldn’t have attacked it until they’d seen it themselves. Dickerson was also set that year to direct the pilot for the television series The Untouchables but was replaced a month after the assignment was first announced. Variety quoted “sources” who said that “Dickerson was running over schedule.” In 1993 Dickerson began directing the action-adventure Surviving the Game, starring Rutger Hauer, Ice-T, Charles Dutton, F. Murray Abraham, and Gary Busey. The film—about a homeless man tracked for sport in the wilderness—was shot in the state of Washington and set for release in the spring of 1994.
Dickerson has clearly arrived as a director; whether or not he will return to cinematography remains to be determined, though Spike Lee has little doubt. “We will work [together] again someday,” the director assured the New York Times. Lee also offered perhaps the most eloquent praise of his collaborator, saying, “Ernest is an artist, a painter. He’s not a technician.”
Magill’s Cinema Annual 1993, Salem Press, 1993, 191-194.
Back Stage, February 1, 1992, pp. 53-54; July 24, 1992, pp. 6, 47.
Entertainment Weekly, November 27, 1992, pp. 28-39.
Interview, February 1992, p. 78.
Los Angeles Times (Calendar), July 28, 1991, pp. 3,27-28.
Newsweek, November 16, 1992, p. 74.
New York, May 13, 1991.
New York Times, January 22, 1992, p. C13; April 18, 1993, pp. 14, 19.
Premiere, May 1988; February 1991, p. 40; November 1992, p. 93.
Rolling Stone, February 6, 1992, p. 90.
Variety, January 20, 1992; March 20, 1992; September 14, 1992; October 19, 1992; August 27, 1993.
"Dickerson, Ernest 1952(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dickerson-ernest-1952
"Dickerson, Ernest 1952(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dickerson-ernest-1952
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Cinematographer and Director. Nationality: American. Born: Newark, New Jersey, 1952. Education: Degrees from Howard University School of Architecture and New York University Graduate School of Film. Family: Married twice; second wife, Traci; one daughter and one son. Career: Filmed surgical procedures for Howard University Medical School and commercials for Nike; cinematographer for all of Spike Lee's films, 1981–92; began career as a director with PBS documentary Spike & Co.: Do It A Capella, 1990; photographed television series Tales from the Darkside and Law and Order, 1990; filmed music videos for Anita Baker, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, the Neville Brothers, and others; founded Original Film, a bicoastal company formed to produce television commercials and public service announcements, 1992. Awards: New York Film Critics Circle Award, Best Cinematography, for Do the Right Thing, 1989; L.A. Outfest Grand Jury Award for Outstanding American Narrative Feature, for Blind Faith, 1999. Agent: Dolores Robinson Agency, 10683 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90025, U.S.A.
Films as Cinematographer:
Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (Lee)
The Brother From Another Planet (Sayles)
Krush Groove (Schultz)
She's Gotta Have It (Lee) (+ ro)
Enemy Territory (Manoogian); Eddie Murphy Raw (doc) (Townsend)
School Daze (Lee)
Do the Right Thing (Lee)
The Laserman (Wong); Def by Temptation (Bond); Ava & Gabriel (de Rooy); Mo' Better Blues (Lee)
Jungle Fever (Lee)
Cousin Bobby (doc) (Demme); Malcolm X (Lee)
Films as Director:
Juice (+ co-sc)
Surviving the Game
Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight
Ambushed; Blind Faith (for TV); Futuresport (for TV)
Strange Justice (for TV)
By DICKERSON: articles—
Interview with Jacquie Jones, "Peer Pressure," in Black Film Review (New York), 1993.
On DICKERSON: books—
Lee, Spike, Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking, New York, 1987.
Lee, Spike, Do the Right Thing (journal, production notes, and script), New York, 1989.
On DICKERSON: articles—
Dyson, Michael Eric, "Out of the Ghetto," in Sight & Sound (London), October 1992.
Harrell, Al, "Malcolm X: One Man's Legacy, to the Letter," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1992.
Ravo, Nick, "Ernest Dickerson Would Rather Be Called Director," in New York Times, 18 April 1993.
Chan, Kenneth, "The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties," in Cinema Journal (Austin, Texas), Winter 1998.
Jefferson, Margo, "Television as Storyteller, Shaping History into Legend," in New York Times, 6 September 1999.
* * *
Ernest Dickerson's career has so far divided rather decisively into two parts: until 1991, he was exclusively a cinematographer, and since 1992, he has been exclusively a director. He was Spike Lee's director of photography on all his films from student projects (culminating in the hour-long Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads) through Malcolm X, creating a distinctive look that sets these films apart from Lee's post-Dickerson work. As a director he began auspiciously with Juice, one of the best of the youth-crime dramas of the early 1990s, but went on to make a series of genre films that received little critical notice or box office success. Recent forays into social melodrama rather than action-thriller suggest that he may be finding a voice for himself in a different genre while continuing to engage himself in stories of the ongoing struggles of blacks in America.
Spike Lee's book on the making of his first feature, She's Gotta Have It, describes how Dickerson was an important collaborator. It was the latter's idea to shoot the film in black and white (and the dance scene in color), and he directed the scenes in which Lee appears onscreen as Mars Blackmon. Shot in super 16mm, the film is handsomely realized, most strikingly in its inventive lighting and framing for each of the sex scenes between Nola and one of her three lovers.
Do the Right Thing, Lee's third feature, is visually remarkable in many ways, beginning with the fact that it appears to take place on a single hot day and night on a Brooklyn street. Actually, the film was shot on location over the course of several weeks in varying weather, even occasionally in rain (as in Radio Raheem's first encounter with some youths sitting on an apparently sunny stoop). Dickerson very precisely drew up a scheme noting the time of day each scene must take place, in order to create the sense of inexorable movement from sweltering dawn to glowing dusk. He has commented on his choice of hot colors for the night sequences too (rather than the typical blues that suggest a cooling down), and on the need—for this and all films with a cast of people of color—to choose the right lighting and film stocks to bring out the full rich range of light and dark skin tones. Do the Right Thing is filled with so many memorable shots that every viewer might have different favorites: e.g., the first shot after the opening credits, a remarkable pullback from the lips of Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) at his radio mike to a wide view of the street where the whole film will take place; or the radiant late-afternoon look of Jade (Joie Lee) in her pink dress and hat. Of Dickerson's other films for Lee, one might single out 'Mo Better Blues for its "jazzy" camera movements to suggest the improvisatory nature of the music, and Malcolm X for its shifting color schemes for the different phases of Malcolm's life.
Dickerson's first feature as director, completed before Malcolm X, remains in many ways his most accomplished. Based on his own preliminary script, Juice traces the lives of four Harlem youths spiraling out of control. (Dickerson gave all four actors their first major screen roles, with Omar Epps and music star Tupac Shakur going on to important film careers, tragically short in the case of the latter.) The plot may be a bit schematic, with Q (Epps) aspiring to win fame in the hip hop world of DJ contests, while Bishop (Shakur) watches White Heat rather too intensely, identifying himself with James Cagney's lunatic gangster, whom he sees "taking destiny in his own hands" and "going out in a blaze." Bishop lures his pals into a grocery-store robbery that he turns into murder, then psychotically seeks to slay each of his now former buddies. But Dickerson gives the drama a rich texture and density, partly by including memorable minor characters (notably those played by Queen Letifah and Samuel L. Jackson), but especially through the photography and pacing. He places his characters solidly within Harlem settings which are full of detail without any shots seeming self-consciously picturesque or cluttered. He finds striking locations, like a deserted courtyard which seems like the bottom of a well, into which the friends flee after the robbery and where Bishop slays one of them—or the 125th St. Viaduct, under which Bishop chases Q. Also effective is the overall arc of the drama from bright daylight in the first half to predominantly night in the second half, as the story turns from kids playing hooky and stealing records to murder and pursuit. The DJ contest is excitingly portrayed with restless camera and fast editing, while a funeral scene, right after an intense police grilling, slows down the pace at a point where the drama needs it. Shakur's sudden creepy appearances onscreen in the second haf are rather horror-movie in style, but his performance is disturbing in its intensity. Juice may be a little weak in its final resolution, and it has been criticized for placing blame for ruined lives on individual psychosis rather than larger social forces of racism, but Dickerson has defended his film in terms of its being explicitly about peer pressure.
Dickerson's subsequent films continue to tell troubled stories of African Americans, most often using action-melodrama as a vehicle. Surviving the Game, one of many remakes of 1932's The Most Dangerous Game, updates the tale of a madman hunting humans for sport by having a group of affluent "weekend warrior" types spouting jargon about "embracing the animal within" themselves and getting in touch with their "prime masculine essence," while their victims are ghetto loners lured to a remote wilderness with promises of a job. The film plays down naked racism by having references only to "the poor" or to "someone like you" (i.e., the hero, played by Ice-T), and casting Charles S. Dutton (rather implausibly) as one of the vicious hunters. All the same, the satisfaction of the drama comes from seeing an unarmed but resourceful black man outwit his mostly white pursuers. To Dickerson's credit, the film has original touches like having the hunt played out in woods ironically bathed in splendid golden light, rather than going for a noirish look; and although the villains do a lot of scene-chewing, the director allows one of them, Gary Busey, the opportunity to deliver at leisure a chilling, brilliantly acted monologue. Unfortunately, the final scene of the film, back in a ghetto alleyway, is so improbable and ineptly staged that everyone involved seems to have given up on the project.
One can imagine Dickerson having a lark with the horror-movie conventions of Demon Knight, his third project; but Bulletproof—an "action-comedy" featuring a black cop and white crook, friends turned enemies, fleeing both police and mobsters—accomplishes little other than providing Adam Sandler some good opportunities to display his distinctive humor (most notably a Whitney Houston imitation). Hampered by the script, Dickerson finds no way to make the co-star, Damon Wayans, anything but thick-headed and unamusing, while the quite graphic violence seems at odds with the light comedy, and the combination of mysogyny and constant jokes about homosexual acts and the quarreling friends being "sweet on" each other give the film a most peculiar tone. Production values are undistinguished except for some handsome lighting (as in nearly all of Dickerson's projects). One other genre piece, Futuresport, was originally a pilot for a TV series, shot both for a network showing and for an R-rated videotape release. This is Dickerson's first directorial foray into science fiction, though less Blade Runner than Max Headroom—indeed, both the look of this near-future world and the plot seem directly derived from that 1980s series. It does boast some snazzy footage of the titular game—a kind of co-ed hockey played on floating skateboards—and Wesley Snipes has fun with a Rasta accent as a mysterious possible villain, but the film is otherwise far from a major achievement.
Ambushed, on the other hand, deserves more recognition than it has received to date. Its virtues are those of a "B" movie of the 1940s, with haunting, powerful scenes embedded in hokey melodrama and some unconvincing action (including more than one ambush). The plot involves another unlikely pair on the run: here, a black cop and a vicious-mouthed 12-year-old son of a neo-Nazi, fleeing both a corrupt police force and gangs of murderous racists. The setting is some Southern state of today where black children are regularly kidnapped, black men are routinely threatened with lynching, and less-than-fully-racist white children are murdered by their fathers, without any police interference. Yet the film features some genuinely moving scenes between fathers and sons or surrogate sons, and an atmospheric climax in a deserted industrial complex, with lots of canted angles. At its best moments, Ambushed seems to have a "B"-movie conviction abut its own preposterous situations and dialogue.
More recently Dickerson has tried his hand at domestic melodrama, with mixed results. In Blind Faith his usual eye for striking lighting effects is in evidence, but he does little to make plausible (or compellingly lurid) a plot, set in the 1950s, in which the first black cop in his Bronx precinct (Charles Dutton in one of his rare unconvincing performances) helps cover up the white gang murder of a young black homosexual, even though he knows that doing so will cause his own gay son to be sentenced to death for a murder that was really self-defense. Far more successful is Strange Justice, a retelling of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy. While the producer and head writer claim to have scrupulously (or perhaps calculatedly) taken a neutral position on who was telling the truth, with the drama focusing upon media exploitation, one might suspect Dickerson and his leading actors (Regina Taylor and Delroy Lindo) of giving more credence to Hill's side. Whether or not it was Dickerson's own idea to stage the climactic speeches at the hearing as "heightened" drama (veering into fantasy, most theatrically when Thomas strips off his shirt and pulls his tie in a noose, before we snap back to the "real" hearing), the scenes work, and the whole film features nuanced performances. Though Dickerson has not yet achieved the status of well-known "auteur" among critics or public, works as varied as Juice and Strange Justice reveal an important artist whose best work may be yet to come.
"Dickerson, Ernest." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/dickerson-ernest
"Dickerson, Ernest." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved April 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/dickerson-ernest