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The Importance Of Seeing Ernest Dickerson

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BY March 18, 2021

Ernest Dickerson has been the cinematographer on a string of now classic movies. He’s also directed some of the most iconic episodes of prestige TV shows. Still, he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. He should be a household name. So let’s talk about him.

Who Is Ernest Dickerson?: A Brief Guide

Ernest Dickerson, or as he’s started going by professionally now, Ernest R. Dickerson, is a filmmaker. Born in Newark, New Jersey, he didn’t set out to make films, though. He originally went to college (at Howard University) to become an architect. However, he took a film class there, caught the film bug, and then serendipity set in.

After he transferred to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he made friends with a classmate. Perhaps you’ve heard of him–his name is Spike Lee. And speaking of Lees, another classmate of theirs was future director Ang Lee. The trio worked together on (Spike) Lee’s 1983 thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Ang Lee served as assistant director, while Dickerson worked as director of photography.

After graduation, Dickerson first found work primarily as a cinematographer, often on music videos. Dickerson is a long-time genre fan, though, so it’s no surprise that he also worked on the Tales from the Darkside series by George Romero. In addition, his first professional film credit was as the DP for the sci-fi classic, The Brother from Another Planet.

In 1985, Spike Lee scraped together enough of a budget to make his first professional feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. Dickerson came aboard as DP, beginning a long collaboration with his former classmate.

The Spike Lee Years

She’s Gotta Have It was a modest enough hit at the time, as was Lee’s next film School Daze. However, neither compared in reception or legacy to 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Set during a boiling Brooklyn summer, the film explores racial tension in Bed-Stuy, primarily between Black and Italian-American neighbors.

ernest dickerson Do the Right Thing, image via Universal Pictures

Critics praised the film upon its release and it’s only grown in esteem since then. It also received a number of nominations and awards. Dickerson himself, for instance, won Best Cinematography from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Dickerson would then go on to work with Lee on Mo’ Better Blues and Jungle Fever. For my money, though, he did his standout work during the Spike Lee years on 1992’s Malcolm X. There are many affecting shots within the film, but my favorite is a double dolly shot. As I mentioned in my review of the movie Da 5 Bloods, the double dolly shot is a Lee movie trademark.

The Dickerson Art Of Filmmaking

Dickerson and Lee created the technique on the set of Mo’ Better Blues. Traditionally, a “dolly,” or wheeled platform, is used to move the camera around a scene. With a double dolly, the actor is also on the dolly (or a separate one), so the scenery around them seems to move.

The most striking and memorable shot to me in Malcolm X is the double dolly just before the film depicts the minister’s assassination. The weight of the world is on Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) and you can feel his exhaustion through the screen. The shot, as he’s wheeled forward, also illustrates “the plodding inevitability of his demise,” as MasterClass puts it.

For me, it’s a perfect synthesis of director, actor, cinematographer, and even sound, as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” swells in the background.

Dickerson As Film Director

1992 wasn’t only the year Dickerson and Lee made Malcolm X. It was also the year Dickerson directed his first feature film, Juice, which he also cowrote with Gerard Brown. The film follows four young Black men in Harlem as they try to improve their lives, often in questionable ways. Not only did it introduce the slang term “juice” into mainstream life, but it also featured the film debut of Tupac Shakur. In addition, critics praised the film, particularly Dickerson’s direction.

ernest dickerson Juice, image via Paramount Pictures

Dickerson followed that film with 1994’s Surviving the Game, a take on the classic short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” After that came Demon Knight, a film-length version of a Tales from the Crypt story. Although it garnered middling reviews at the time of its release, I’ve watched it recently and found it to be underrated. While it’s a typical and perfectly serviceable “episode” of Tales from the Crypt, I thought the performances were solid. Dickerson also manages to inject some flair into the proceedings, his love for genre film shining through the somewhat silly story.

Throughout the rest of the 90s and into the 2000s, Dickerson would direct several more films, mostly crime thrillers. One notable aberration, though, was 2001’s Bones, a horror-fueled tribute to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Again, like Demon Knight, it didn’t fare well with critics. However, some critics have reevaluated it in recent years as a cult classic.

Ernest Dickerson Down To The Wire: His Work In TV

As I said, Ernest Dickerson has worked in TV since his professional career began. His cinematography work in television, though, gave way to his work as a director just as it did with movies. And boy, has he worked.

Think of a popular and/or critically acclaimed TV series in the 21st century and chances are, Dickerson has directed at least one episode of it. You couldn’t name them all in one breath. Just writing them all out would read like an encyclopedia or a stack of TV Guides.

ernest dickerson The Wire, image via HBO

So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll just hit some highlights. For example, Dickerson directed several episodes of The Wire, only one of the greatest–the greatest?–shows of all time. Among them are “Hamsterdam,” a damn classic. He would also go on to direct multiple episodes of Wire creator David Simon’s next show, Treme.

But again, he’s directed so much more TV than that. We’re talking episodes of *deep breath* ER, Heroes, Law & Order, Stargate Universe, The Vampire Diaries, Dexter, The Walking Dead, The Purge, House of Cards–and it just keeps going. Most recently, for instance, he’s directed episodes of Bosch.

To Sum Up

So basically, he’s built the kind of career that any fledgling director (or cinematographer) would kill for. Yet still, he’s not recognized the way some other directors are. Part of that might have to do with the fact that so much of his work, particularly in recent years, is in television. Part of it might be that the public just has a limited knowledge of the people behind the camera. But I also suspect that part of it might be something else, the same thing that’s kept Ashley Boone, Jr. out of the Star Wars spotlight. And I really hope that’s not true.

While I check out Dickerson’s Masters of Horror episode (“The V Word”), which I’ve somehow never seen, I’d love to hear your favorite examples of Dickerson’s work. Share with us in these comments or on our social media.

featured image of Demon Knight via Universal Pictures

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

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