ernest dickerson

Although Ernest Dickerson has been directing since his unforgettable 1992 debut Juice, he started his film career as a cinematographer. “My first love was cinematography,” says 63-year-old Dickerson from his home in California. “I used to sit at night watching movies with my uncle, and that was how I discovered what cinematography was all about.”

While Dickerson’s first professional gig was with John Sayles on The Brother From Another Planet, it was work with his film school friend Spike Lee where he received the most acclaim as a director of photography.

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Inspired by directors Stanley Kubrick, Orson Wells and Gordon Willis, Dickerson set out to create his own lush personal style in collaboration with Lee. Dickerson shot She’s Got to Have It, School Daze, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. But arguably, it was his work on the brilliant Do the Right Thing that was a pinnacle of his cinematography career.

Twenty-five years after the release of that landmark film, Ernest Dickerson talks about Do the Right Thing.

EBONY: Can you explain what a cinematographer does.

Ernest Dickerson: Well, movies are photographs. But instead of one picture at a time, there is a series of 24 pictures a second. When these are projected, it gives the illusion of movies. The use of light, exposure, color or no color, those are all photographic aspects. My uncle was the first person to put a still camera in my hand, and I used to see some of the black and white prints he did. He started taking photography classes, and his work really impressed me, his beautiful black and white prints. He helped me buy my first still camera.

One night we were watching Oliver Twist, the 1948 version directed by David Lean. My uncle said, “God, the photography is amazing.” That’s when it hit me. Movies are photographs. I always wondered why certain movies looked the way they did. Come to find out, I was responding to the cinematography and the composition. That’s what started me on the road to filmmaking.

EBONY: How did you meet Spike Lee?

ED: I met Spike at NYU Film School my first day there. Going in, there weren’t too many Black folks: me, Spike and two other Black folks. When we first met, we started ragging on each other’s [undergrad] school, because I went to Howard and he went to Morehouse. But later, we started talking about our love of movies, as well as the movies we wanted to make.

‘Do the Right Thing’ opening credits

‘Do the Right Thing’ opening credits

EBONY: Were you living in NYC when you guys began working on Do the Right Thing?

ED: I lived in Fort Greene. I lived in Brooklyn from ’88 to ’93. I lived around the corner from Forty Acres [& a Mule Filmworks’ office]. I was there for a while. I was conscious of the politics going on in New York City under Mayor Koch, but for me, work-wise, it was a very fertile period. Working with Spike, doing the movies as well as music videos. It was good for me and I really fell in love with Brooklyn. When I moved to New Jersey, I really missed it, the whole neighborhood aspect of it. We tried to capture that neighborhood flavor in Do the Right Thing.

EBONY: What was the origin of Do the Right Thing?

ED: I remember when he first started writing it. We were flying from New York to Los Angeles still working on School Daze. Spike always wrote with pens on legal pads, and he was writing something that was called Heat Wave. The first thing he said was, “I’m writing a script that takes place on the hottest day of summer and I want you to figure out a way for the audience to feel heat.”

One of the things about my cinematography is the use of color, so that was the first thing I thought about: how can I accomplish this with color? When I finally got the script a month before we started shooting, I started setting down some parameters. Since the story took play in one day, but we were shooting for eight weeks, there was plenty to deal with in terms of weather and other things. Me being brought on early on helped a lot. [I] really got involved in planning the production, as well as the riot scene at the end. Spike was dealing with so much stuff, he just asked me to take it—storyboard it and design that sequence. It was cool.

The one block we were shooting on became our studio for eight weeks. We shot right there on that block. We had X-Men [Fruit of Islam] providing security for us. For those eight weeks, that was the safest block in Brooklyn. Nothing happened there; no crime or anything.

Although it rained for the first two weeks of shooting, it was interesting; it was a great experience. We did some minor renovations on some of the houses. The neighbors were totally cool and it was interesting. Great crew, great cast.

EBONY: Can you talk a little bit about the cast?

ED: It was great; we knew we had some talented people there. I already knew Danny Aiello from a show I worked on called Tales from the Darkside. John Turturro, I’d wanted to work with for a long time, but I was a little scared, because the characters he always played were a little intense, bordering on psychotic. He was in a movie called Four Corners where the character threw his mother out of the window. But he was totally cool. We’ve worked together a bunch of times, and he is totally cool.

There was also Martin Lawrence, and it was good seeing Sam Jackson again. The part he had in School Daze wasn’t that big, but this was an expanded role. He did some great work as Mister Señor Love Daddy, and he’s been expanding ever since.

To work with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee was just amazing. Ossie was one of the warmest people, and Ruby was one of the most beautiful women in film and theater. Ossie had been a fixture of my life for so long. I love Cotton Comes to Harlem, which he directed. Seeing them every day was really cool. I had my aunt come to the set just so she could meet them; my mom came too.   

EBONY: There is a somewhat neo-noir feel look to Do the Right Thing.

ED: I love noir. I’ve always been attracted to films of drama. The most influence on me was the films of [Orson] Wells, especially The Magnificent Ambersons. In film, noir expressionism helps me to elicit an emotional response with composition and lighting. To be very expressionistic through photography is something I’ve always loved.

EBONY: Were there budget issues on the film?

ED: We did the film for about eight million. The great thing about shooting Do the Right Thing was, we were on one block and didn’t travel around, so we didn’t need a lot of teamsters and trucks to travel around in. Wasn’t travel from one location to another. We got all the daytime stuff done first, and then went to the nighttime stuff where we burned down the pizza parlor. Once that pizza parlor got burned down, that was it. The plans we laid down went pretty good.

EBONY: Can you talk about Public Enemy?

ED: We shot the “Fight the Power” video right after shooting the film. We set up a stage in the middle the street. Had a parade, and the crowd just grew and grew until we hit the stage and the concert continued.

EBONY: What does Do the Right Thing mean to you 25 years later?

ED: I’m just happy to be a part of it. When we did it, we tried to do the best job we could and tell a great story. I’m always amazed when kids approach me and say they studied it in film school. They studied my use of colors, my color structures and composition. Just glad that people have continued to discover it and it still moves people to this day. Spike and I did some great things together. I’m proud of that movie.

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.