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

Share The GrioShare The Grio

When asked if he still thought whether there was a place in Hollywood for black cinema, without hesitation: “Yes, there is definitely still a place for black cinema. For instance, we haven’t seen a sci-fi film with black protagonists. That’s one of the newer projects I’m working on, an adaptation of one of Octavia Butler’s novel Clay’s Ark. There is a lot of material out there. I want to see young black filmmakers embrace a range of subjects and genres.”

This could seem like a catch 22 or at least a point of friction – conceiving of black film as an important source of original content, while recognizing the trouble with getting original content produced, but Mr. Dickerson is quick to raise creative solutions,

“What we have on our side is independent film. There are so many innovations and opportunities with the advent of digital cinematography, in some ways it is easier to make a film. There are so many different stories out there. I would like to see black cinema become as diverse as our literature, and for young film makers to endeavor to think outside of the box.”

If good cinema, and good story telling is like a fine wine, then perhaps there is some truth to the maxim that there are only essentially seven stories ever told, and it is the elements of style, the artful craft of the bottle we dress them in that makes the difference. theGrio was interested to know how Dickerson crafted his unique, and beautiful bottles.

“I have always been drawn as a filmmaker to telling stories through visuals. When I read a script, I draw pictures in the margins. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.”

He goes on to explain the importance of preparation to the film-making process, and using story boards to tell a cohesive story that could essentially tell itself, if necessary, without sound. This idea has a poetic resonance, the power of film to give voice — taking up Juice once again as a titular example — to that which is otherwise ineffable, like the nuances of culture, of hip-hop, of daily life. How often, for example, has one struggled to explain the black experience to an insensible person or crowd? It is the power of film to show rather then tell.

Apropos of films with black themes and characters, it seemed impossible not to ask Dickerson his thoughts on Quentin Tarantino’s hit revenge thriller, Django Unchained, especially given his friend and colleague Spike Lee’s controversial refusal to see the film on the grounds that it would dishonor his ancestors. On this point he is candid:

“I really enjoyed Django. I’m a fan of the original western. The thing is, is it’s not meant to be a historical drama; it’s a revenge fantasy, old wine new bottles. I think my ancestors would have loved to have seen it. How often do you get that kind of enduring black love story? And, it’s doing what good art always does, it’s inspiring opinion.”

Looking ahead, Mr Dickerson, in addition to his lecture series at Howard has a host of new projects cropping up. On top of his recurring work on all season’s of The Walking Dead — if you aren’t watching, you really should be (I’m told that, if Michonne and Tyreese survive, there are sure to be some surprises in store) — he is also gearing up for the debut of a new pilot recently acquired by AMC, Low Winters Sun. This dark thriller, based on an English drama by the same name — old wine, new bottles — transplants the lead actor from the original series from Edinburgh to the mean streets of Detroit, where two cops get entangled in a murder mystery, full of high stake twists and turns. You can expect it likely in 2014.

For the silver screen, in addition to attempting to bring Octavia Butler’s novel to life, Mr. Dickerson hints at a horror story he’s also working to get produced.

What is black cinema? One could argue original content, innovative film-making and black cinema are actually synonymous. Maybe things have changed significantly for black film makers and theatergoers — maybe not much.

What is certain, and to take a page out of Ernest Dickerson’s well-worn and wise notebook, “creation is a patient search.” One can only hope that young minds will be inspired and learn from trailblazers like Dickerson, and continue to produce art that transcends their present context, fermenting smooth, full and deep wine that might be bottled and restored for generations to come.

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.