Ernest Dickerson: Legendary black filmmaker behind the scenes of ‘Walking Dead’

Share The GrioShare The Grio

When it comes to filmmaker Ernest Dickerson — who in his directorial debut brought us the iconic urban drama Juice, having more recently found a home on the sets of award winning original series The Walking Dead and Treme (for which he received a 2012 NAACP Image Award, and is nominated this year for Outstanding Director in a Drama Series) — looking forward, looking ahead, is not just hopeful, it is essential. And yet, Mr. Dickerson is also quick to point out that it is not by discarding the past, like an orange rind, that we achieve true beauty and innovation, but by refashioning it in evermore creative and subversive ways.

In a career spanning more than thirty years, in an industry where successful black directors and filmmakers are few and far between, Dickerson now plans to take the lessons he’s learned, having honed his talent as a student of NYU’s Tisch school alongside colleague Spike Lee, over the years solidifying his place as one of Hollywood’s top creative talents, back to his alma mater, Howard University for a week long lecture series from January 28th to February 1st.

There he will talk with young filmmakers about the industry, about film making, and about the creative process.

When asked about what it means to be able to return to Howard and conduct the week-long lecture series, Dickerson was grateful for the opportunity.

“I haven’t been back in a while, but it feels good to be able to offer practical, lived experience to a new generation of talent. I didn’t have that when I was coming up. I wish I’d had that,” he said.

Proud to serve as the example he never had, a testament, in some respects, to the progress that’s been made in the film industry in the last three decades, it’s still clear much hasn’t changed, and that many of the same challenges lie ahead for young black filmmakers today as they did then. When asked about some of those chief challenges, Dickerson is very clear:

“Funding is a problem for all filmmakers, but especially for black film makers, because it is difficult to obtain funding for subject matter that isn’t considered commercial.”

For anyone with an interest in film, who, from time to time emerges from beneath the rock, despite the astronomical inflation of ticket sales, to take a trip to the cinema, (or for those who opt instead to indulge in the occasional binge on Netflix), it is an unsurprising reality that there exists a shortage of examples of well-known black filmmakers, and black films (that got their fair shake at the box office, anyway).

Some of the more recognizable names from the past quarter century that might come to mind (and for the purposes of this article) would likely include Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Mr. Dickerson himself, all of whom in the early 90s helped to herald a new wave of black cinema with films like Malcolm X, Boys in the Hood, Do the Right Thing, School Daze, and Poetic Justice.

However, for those few shining examples of black film that garnered both critical acclaim and popular success, there are other films where the problem of funding and commercial appeal couldn’t be clearer.

Take, for example, Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the IRT. Filmed on a budget of approximately $100,000 in a matter of 17 days, during a time when American theatergoers had a growing appetite for the contemporary urban drama (and an arguably exotic interest in the lives of black people, or urban black men anyway), it would have seemed well poised, but in Harris’ own words was a movie that “Hollywood wouldn’t touch.” And, although it won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance upon its release, has sense gone largely unsung.

“When I was making Juice I considered it a black film,” said Dickterson. “I had a clear intention that I wanted to make a film noir, one of my favorite genres, where the protagonists were young black men. I like to say that when it comes to making movies, I am interested in old wine in new bottles. Those bottles can be beautiful. It’s about taking something, like the noir genre, but applying new elements of style.”