Director Ernest Dickerson brings his style to 'The Wire'

The Baltimore Sun

Preston "Bodie" Broadus wipes his hand down over his face and stands with his back facing the camera.

In this scene from this past season's The Wire, the street-level drug dealer faces the future alone after the collapse of his drug enterprise and the murder of a friend.

This moment, according to director Ernest Dickerson, represents a rite of passage for the character. His life in HBO's gritty crime series set in Baltimore is about to change.

The camera zooms out slowly and opens the shot to show Bodie standing alone on the corner, facing rows of steps and abandoned homes.

"A lot of times, I am just trying to find a way of emphasizing a character's state of mind," says Dickerson about the scene. "I know a lot of producers hated me shooting an actor's back. They wanted me to shoot his face. But, you know, sometimes in the way somebody's shoulders slump, you can tell so much about how that character feels."

It is this creative approach to filmmaking that has garnered the Howard University and New York University film school graduate a reputation as a innovative filmmaker.

Dickerson, a Newark, N.J., native, has directed five episodes of The Wire, which just completed its fourth season and began production on its fifth season last month. But his credits include a long list of accomplishments.

Fans of filmmaker Spike Lee know Dickerson's work. He helped direct Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Malcolm X (1992).

These films include classic Dickerson stylings - characters looking as if they are gliding rather than walking, and rooms spinning around a character.

His television directorial credits include episodes of NBC's ER and CBS' CSI: Miami.

We caught up with him in Los Angeles, where he had moved on from The Wire to another project.

Do they (The Wire's creator and producers) bring you in to do your signature style?

I don't know why they bring me in (laughs), except that maybe they like what I do. I have done five episodes. I enjoy it all. For me, I am always trying to tell the story primarily with the visuals.

Do you think that the story told in The Wire could be told in any city in the United States?

In the middle of last year, I was shooting a scene - a confrontation between [the characters played by] Frankie Faison and Glynn Turman. I am in the middle of shooting this scene between a black mayor and a black police commissioner who are doing Shakespeare power play moves on each other. But it's the kind of the thing that could be happening in the government anywhere in the world.

I guess you know Baltimore is one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation. What do you think about the show's focus on the school system this past year?

I think focusing on the school system is a good way of looking at how things start. I love the fact that the unofficial byline of the series this [past] year is that kids are going to learn. The big question is where. I think that our schools are failing our kids in other places besides Baltimore.

You worked with Julito McCullum, the boy who played Namond on this past season of The Wire. What do you think of his work? You worked with him on the miniseries Miracle's Boys.

He is a great actor. He is definitely the most experienced one of that bunch, but you would never know it. One of the great things about directing The Wire, especially directing one of the later episodes, is when you get there, one of the first things they do is give you all the episodes they have cut up until then. So basically I sit and O.D. [overdose] on everything that has been going on all the way so that I can see how my episode connects. They [the kids] were good when they started at the beginning of the season, but they were amazingly excellent by the end of the season.

What directors, writers, filmmakers have inspired you?

[Martin] Scorsese, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock. They used the art of cinema to tell stories. Their films are primarily visual experiences. Hitchcock believed in something called pure cinema; you didn't need any dialogue and you didn't need any sound - the pictures would tell you everything. They are some of the ones that have really stretched the limits and taught us how you could use your camera to tell a story, how you can control what the audience sees.

You were an architecture major at Howard University. How did that help or not help with your film career?

It actually helped quite a bit. I think what architecture taught me to do was to solve problems, how to analyze problems and solve them.

Any final thoughts on The Wire?

I think The Wire is where television should be. To me, the best television [shows] previously had come out of England. They were challenging and well done, and they pushed the envelope. I think that's what The Wire is doing. When I go to see a movie, I want to be affected. I want that movie to leave a mark. I think that's what The Wire does.

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