How Laurence Fishburne & Spike Lee Are Tied To Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” Video
Writer and director Ernest Dickerson, perhaps best known for his 1992 directorial debut Juice, worked extensively with Spike Lee in the 1980s and ’90s as his cinematographer. Together, they created a myriad of important films like She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. Sitting down with The Cipher to celebrate Juice’s 25th anniversary, Dickerson revealed details about another, lesser-known collaboration between the filmmakers.
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Dickerson and Lee were behind an unofficial music video for Melle Mel’s 1983 single about the dangers of cocaine, “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It).” Starring a young, “well-dancing” Laurence Fishburne (back when he still went by “Larry”), the cinematic visuals were shot on spec (without being commissioned) with the intention of impressing The Furious 5 front-man’s label, the iconic Sugar Hill Records. “We met Laurence [Fishburne] out at NYU. He would come through and we were star struck by him because he had been in Apocalypse Now… He was like a real actor.” Dickerson points out Fishburne’s roles in other important films like Cornbread, Earl & Me impressing the two budding filmmakers. The conversation starts around the 17:00 mark.
The risk was a strategy to help forge his and Lee’s careers, which unfortunately did not pay off. “Spike and I were trying to figure out how were we gonna break into the industry,” Dickerson explained. “Spike decided to just try to shoot it on spec and see what happens.”
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Surprisingly, considering the video’s quality, Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill never responded. Understandably, Dickerson and Lee were thus “incensed” to see it playing on the Night Flight TV series, years later. Apparently it had leaked after the label’s 1986 shuttering and subsequent sale. “I’m just flipping channels one night, at home… and what’s on but our ‘White Lines’ video,” said Dickerson. “I think by that time [Sugar Hill] had gone belly up, and I guess they just raided their library for whatever they had and put it on Night Flight.”
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Of course, the unfortunate circumstance would hinder none of the parties involved. Dickerson would go on to direct multiple movies, as well as episodes of hit TV shows like The Wire, Dexter and The Walking Dead. Lee’s legacy, of course, goes without saying. It is worth noting, however, that he would get the opportunity to direct music videos for artists like Public Enemy, Arrested Development and Naughty By Nature.
Also, according to Dickerson, Fishburne met the mother of his two eldest children on the video’s set, so at least someone benefited from its creation substantially. “We got some dancers, who were from the dance department at NYU… and actually that’s where Laurence met the lady who would be his first wife,” he disclosed. “She was one of the dancers.”
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A high quality version of the unofficial video has not been made available online. Elsewhere in the Cipher discussion, Dickerson revealed co-writing Juice as an homage to Claude Brown’s Manchild In The Promised Land book. He also discussed working with Ice-T in Surviving The Game, and his strong use of color in his cinematography for the Lee films.