With decades of filmmaking under his belt, creating stories centered around the culture has always been the blueprint for Ernest Dickerson.
As he continues to tell stories that shed light on our experience, he remains just as ambitious, dedicated, and creative as ever before teaming up with fellow storyteller Ava DuVernay for the new futuristic, dystopian-era drama DMZ, straight from the pages of the DC acclaimed graphic novel.
“Since I was a child I was always interested in the craft of filmmaking,” Dickerson told Shadow and Act in a recent interview. Though he has made iconic films for decades, Dickerson is also now one of the most prolific directors working in television and is a go-to choice for series of many different genres.
And although DMZ is speculative fiction, it is a work that is particularly resonant given the two pandemic years that we’ve been through. With DuVernay directing the pilot and executive producing, Dickerson also executive produces and directed the other three episodes in the series.
“I was always interested in reading behind the scenes, stories about how different movies were made, I grew up watching movies and just loved how a lot of them were made,” he said.
Growing up as a young Black man in the projects of Newark, New Jersey, Dickerson never imagined that he could make a career out of making films, yet he continued to study the craft as much as he possibly could, soaking up all of the knowledge in the space to prepare himself for when the opportunity to put it to use would come.
Having others pour into him was also the push he needed to get started. While attending film school alongside the legendary Spike Lee, Dickerson continued to evolve and grow. During their time at the Tisch School of Arts, the pair worked on what would be the first of many films, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Lee’s 1983 master thesis film which won a Student Academy Award.
He says that working alongside greats like Lee and now, DuVernay, continues to inspire him to soar to new heights and have played a pivotal role in his filmmaking journey.
“I think the most rewarding part of it is being able to have worked with some great people,” Dickerson continued. “People like Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, the actors I’ve worked with like Denzel Washington, and the fact that through our efforts we were able to get more people of color into the business and into the craft. Now, we’re seeing more stories where the central characters are people of color, telling really great stories, not only of our past, but also of the future which I think is very important. We’ll be spending the rest of our lives in the future so we really need to be concerned about where we’re going.”
With the future in mind, the new series, 'DMZ' is centered around a 21st century Civil War that isolates Manhattan Island from the rest of the world.
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Based on the graphic novel, the series follows a journey as “one woman navigates a dangerous and distorted demilitarized zone in a harrowing quest to find her lost son.”
“It’s a great story, I mean so many things that we see happening in our country today make the events, the future events in DMZ quite possible,” he continued. “It’s what the best speculative fiction has always done and that’s being about the dangers that we’re doing with our society, our politics, our lives, what those dangers are and what they’re going to do to us and how it will affect us. This is a great piece of speculative fiction.”
The series stars Rosario Dawson, Benjamin Bratt, Hoon Lee, Freddy Miyares, Jordan Preston Carter and Venus Ariel. The guest stars include Rutina Wesley, Nora Dunn, Jade Wu, Rey Gallegos, Mamie Gummer, Agam Darshi, Juani Feliz and Henry G. Sanders.
As he continues to push the needle forward, Dickerson says that it is now more important than ever to share experiences who reflect who we truly are.
“It’s important because growing up watching television and movies, there were hardly any Black folks, any people who looked like me, who were my color and were important to the story or even had good roles,” he recalled. “I remember it was a big thing when Sidney Poitier came along and it was a big thing for us when Jim Brown came along and started acting in movies because now we finally saw people doing good stuff on television,” said Dickerson. “For so many years of my life, there were no people of color on the screens so it was important to see folks on the screen that looked something like me.”
DMZ is now streaming on HBO Max.