When he was attending New York University Film School with classmate Spike Lee, filmmaker Ernest Dickerson was faced with a common belief that was even more true for Black graduates.
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“The mantra was there is no life after film school. That hit Spike and me because there were hardly any African Americans in film,” said Dickerson.
Today, Spike Lee is Spike Lee and Dickerson, with his work on “The Wire” and “The Walking Dead,” is one of the most in-demand directors in television.
This week, Dickerson will return to his alma mater, Howard University, where he will conduct a week-long film seminar for students there. He’ll dissect his films, meet with students one-on-one, and participate in a workshop titled “The Relationship of the Director and Cinematographer” moderated by his former teacher Haile Gerima.
“When I was coming up we didn’t have that. We didn’t have anybody to talk to and get guidance from. We were shooting in the dark trying to figure out how to become working professionals,” said Dickerson, an Emmy- and- Peabody-award winner who was just nominated for a 2013 NAACP Image Award for Best Director for his work on HBO’s “Treme.”
These days, Dickerson is working frequently. In addition to his work on “Dexter” and “Treme,” Dickerson filmed the pilot for the AMC pilot Low Winter Sun, a drama about corruption and murder in Detroit. He also just finished the Season 3 finale for the AMC hit show “The Walking Dead.”
What can fans of the show expect? Dickerson couldn’t reveal much but said you never know whose going to live or die on the show.
“It’s a horror series, but it’s serious horror. You care about the people things are happening to,” said Dickerson. “I treat the show like a modern-day western.”
Dickerson co-wrote and directed “Juice” and was the cinematographer on Spike Lee films such as “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” and “Malcolm X.” According to Dickerson, he has always tried to bring a film sensibility to his television work.
“I’m proud that one of the first television shows I ever did was “The Wire.” They wanted filmmaking and they wanted filmmaking sensibility,” said Dickerson. “I had a chance to direct a scene between a Black mayor and Black police commissioner who were running Shakespearean power moves on one another in a wood-paneled office. How often does that happen? That’s what I live for.”
The representation of African Americans on television is not where it needs to be, said Dickerson.
“I would love to see more Black character dramas such as “Soul Food.” We do too many comedies. I’m tired of seeing Black men in drag. If we are doing comedy, I would like to see something much smarter and more satirical,” said Dickerson.
But Dickerson is quick to remind everyone that he started out as a feature filmmaker, and while the television work is rewarding in many ways, it is feature films where he is looking to ultimately leave his mark.
News broke recently that Dickerson is shopping an adaptation of Black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler’s “Clay’s Ark.” The script is done and Dickerson is on board to direct. The challenge now is finding funding for the project.
“It was sent to me and it blew me away because it’s a really good ride. Some of the best science fiction is about what it means to be human,” said Dickerson. “It has major Black characters, major Hispanic-American characters, and a multicultural cast. It’s a powerful script based on a powerful novel.”
“Making any movie today is a struggle, especially if you are trying to do something original that’s not a remake. It took 8 or 9 years to get ‘Juice’ made,” said Dickerson.
And what does the veteran filmmaker think of the controversy surrounding Spike Lee’s critique of the Quentin Tarantino film “Django Unchained,” where Lee said he felt the film was “disrespectful” to his “ancestors.”
Lee’s criticism prompted a series of responses, from the likes of comedian and activist Dick Gregory, rapper Luke “Uncle Luke” Campbell, and actor Jamie Foxx. Gregory called Lee a “thug” and a “punk,” and Campbell, of all people, called Lee a “scheming Uncle Tom,” with “Django” star Foxx saying Lee had “run his course” and was being “shady” by “taking shots at his colleagues without looking at the work.”
Dickerson said he saw “Django” with his family and “loved it.”
“Spike is entitled to his opinion. Great art inspires opinions. I’m just sorry the discussion has devolved into name calling,” said Dickerson. “Good art always inspires different opinions. People should be able to disagree with Spike but do it in a respectful manner.”
Great art is what Dickerson said he hopes to inspire the future filmmakers at Howard to do this week.
His advice ranges from studying the craft by watching movies of all kinds, from black-and-white movies to silent movies that teach how to tell a story without words to using any time in school to actually make movies. With Black directors, such as Antoine Fuqua and F. Gary Gray, much has changed since Dickerson and Lee left NYU Film School, but the veteran says he’s still striving for more.
“I’m still trying to work. I’m trying to do projects that are close to me. Have I arrived? No. I’m still trying to get there,” said Dickerson. “I like to think that my best work is yet to come.”
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