INTERVIEW / Harlem nights: Sheila Johnston talks to Ernest Dickerson, the director of Juice and Spike Lee's longstanding cinematographer

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The Independent Culture
Last year's remarkable harvest of films on black subjects was no flash in the pan: currently in the US charts are two comedies, Eddie Murphy's Boomerang and Mo' Money, and Bebe's Kids, an animated feature with black characters. And among the year's earlier hits was Juice, another of the recent films portraying the troubled youth of African-America: in it, four friends living in Harlem struggle with variable success to escape from the apparently inevitable option, a short life of crime.

It's a straightforward genre movie with a pounding rap soundtrack written and compiled by Hank Shocklee, the producer of Public Enemy. But, unlike colleagues such as John Singleton, Mario van Peebles and Matty Rich (whose first film, Straight Out of Brooklyn, opens in the autumn), its director, Ernest Dickerson, a soft-spoken, forty-ish man, is a good generation older than the angry young bloods he has put on to the screen.

After graduating from film school, where he was a contemporary of Spike Lee, Dickerson began a successful career as a cinematographer: he shot John Sayles' The Brother from Another Planet and must take a large chunk of the credit for the stylish look of all of Lee's films. He has just finished work on Malcolm X, for which, contrary to reports, he did not convert to Islam (a requirement surely beyond the average cameraman's call of duty). 'Neither Spike nor I went to Mecca; we sent a Muslim camera crew there,' he says. 'So I didn't have to convert, although a couple of our producers did. One of them was Jewish and he actually hasn't changed back, so maybe he's made a life choice.'

Dickerson wrote Juice eight years ago and is frank about the fact that directing it was a commercial decision: 'In some respects this kind of film is easier to get made.' But he also argues that there is room for yet another piece about black urban violence. 'There are so many films dealing with our youth because our kids are in danger and each film-maker wants to say something about it. There's been a tendency to lump them all together because they're about the same age-group, but they're also about different ways of growing up in different geographical locations. The forces at work in South Central Los Angeles (the setting for Boyz N the Hood) or Brooklyn are quite unlike those in Harlem. In LA you have a gang structure that is very organised, and homes with lawns and palm trees, whereas New York is more claustrophobic.'

He chose Harlem for his locations for its particular architecture, at once elegant and oppressive. 'The types of buildings I wanted my characters to live in don't exist in Brooklyn: Harlem has these huge old apartment blocks from the Thirties and Forties. Some of them are magnificent, especially on Riverside Drive: you have 15-room apartments with great high ceilings, where families have lived from generation to generation. And the alley-ways are very expressionistic.'

The box-office success of films like New Jack City, House Party and Boyz N the Hood has prodded the major studios into wooing new black talent - Juice was pre-sold to Paramount, which also produced Boomerang and Bebe's Kids. Hollywood comes with strings, however, and Dickerson was forced to change his original ending in which (attention: this gives away vital plot information) Bishop, the baddest kid, intentionally plunges to his death.

'Bishop was hanging off that roof, and Q (the film's 'good' character) was trying desperately to hold on to him. He suddenly heard police sirens approaching, and he looked up at Q and said: 'I'm not going to jail'. And he let go. Paramount thought we had set Bishop up to be such a bad guy that audiences felt cheated when he was able to decide his own fate.

'They pointed to Fatal Attraction (in which Glenn Close originally committed suicide), and said that if I didn't change it they might not support the film with the utmost confidence.' This exquisitely veiled threat refers to the film's print and advertising budget - inadequate support in those departments would almost inevitably spell its early demise. In the new version, the death is an accident.

Alas, the imposition of a Hollywood moral-ending did not stop Juice, like New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood, from being dogged by outbreaks of violence, including several deaths, at its American screenings. Dickerson, however, insists he was aware of this potential problem and had tried to pre-empt it. 'The Juice script languished, partly because we were scared that we had made Bishop such a strong character, and that audiences would identify with him. So we went back and tried to make Q a more successful foil for him.

'I thought New Jack City was socially irresponsible. It didn't go for any kind of balance; it glamorised the drug dealer played by Wesley Snipes and didn't deal with Ice-T's character, the cop, and what drove him to take the direction he did. I would have liked the film to show both men and how they made their choices in life. As a result, Ice-T pales in comparison with Wesley Snipes, first because his character is so under-developed and secondly because you don't have an actor playing that role; you have a rapper.'

Dickerson's next project is a futuristic political thriller and he would like to think that the new black cinema will eventually move beyond broad comedies and teen-gang movies and throw up a greater diversity of work. 'The potential is there, but the Hollywood distribution companies don't have a clue how to market those films. The Five Heartbeats (Robert Townsend's Sixties-set comedy about a Motown-style group, which flopped in America) had a potential to reach a wider audience. It's not a great movie, but there are moments which really connect with folks in their thirties and forties. I enjoyed it because it dealt with an era in which I was growing up.' And it was widely felt that Charles Burnett's fine, low-key family drama To Sleep with Anger hadn't realised its full potential.

After last May's riots, there was much talk of Los Angeles getting real and taking on board tougher themes of racial inequality. Dickerson reserves judgement on whether the town will come good. 'It's too early to tell; Hollywood still has a lot of growing up to do. Right now we're the flavour of the month and it's up to us as film-makers to try and make that more than just a passing phase. Unfortunately a lot of times the studios don't know which movies will sell and some they've released recently have been pretty bad. House Party did well; House Party 2 did not do as well because it was the same story. Audiences are clamouring for different stories. At the moment we have to think in terms of popular cinema, but later on we can turn to riskier ventures.'

'Juice' opens on 28 August.

(Photograph omitted)