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
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)
Juice (+ co-sc)
Surviving the Game
Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight
Ambushed; Blind Faith (for TV); Futuresport (for TV)
Strange Justice (for TV)
Interview with Jacquie Jones, "Peer Pressure," in Black Film Review (New York), 1993.
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.
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.
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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.