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The signature appeal of Spike Lee’s early films have Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography to thank as much as Lee’s own cinematic flourishes. Dickerson’s eye helped give many Spike Lee joints their distinctive look; it was a symbiotic pairing that would continue through much of their careers. But directing was always in Dickerson’s future. After making his debut with “Juice” in 1992, Dickerson took on one of the most adapted literary works of all time, Richard Connell’s 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” He did so with mixed results, but introduced some provocative ideas that are still worth exploring today. “Surviving the Game” is a worthwhile flashback, given the current racial and political climate in America, as protests continue to engulf the country in reaction to a legacy of black men and women who continue to serve as training dummies and target practice for police officers around the country.
Using a treasure trove of character actors — Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, F. Murray Abraham, John C. McGinley, Charles S. Dutton, and Ice-T — the movie subverts the big-game hunting safari stories on the African continent, by primarily wealthy Brits and Americans, that were popular during the early half of the 20th century. The original Connell tale follows a big-game hunter from New York City who lands in an isolated island in the Caribbean, where he’s hunted by a Russian aristocrat. The message: Human lives could be deemed negotiable or even worthless, and they could become prey for other humans; the ghosts of the American slave trade, which ended just 60 years earlier, hover in the shadows.
The 1994 adaptation was a B-grade genre flick, and more like something of a guilty pleasure, with newbie Ice-T’s performance being its weakest link. But the ideas it introduces are profound and inspire conversation. Whether Connell’s original story was written to make some social commentary is irrelevant, given the way Dickerson has repackaged it as a referendum on class warfare.
By casting Ice-T, a black man, as the prey, Dickerson’s adaptation adds a racial component to Connell’s original story, and further complicates that angle by making one of the hunters — Charles S. Dutton’s character — black as well. One man has been victimized; the other assimilated.
Ice-T plays a homeless man hired as a survival guide for a group of predominantly white wealthy businessmen, on a hunting trip to an isolated mountain area. However, he soon finds out that the men are killers who hunt humans for sport, and that he is their new target.
The movie functions as an obvious commentary on the insignificance of Black lives in the eyes of the (mostly white) rich and powerful men. But it also explores the broader tendency for society to seek victims as a form of catharsis. The prey in “Game” does survive the game, effectively becoming the hunter, turning the tables on his predators to rousing effect. However, his need to survive isn’t exactly a triumph unto itself. One doesn’t cheer for a Black man fighting back against violent racists so much as prey for his survival.
“Surviving the Game” didn’t make much of a splash when it was released 26 years ago, and was mostly panned by critics (27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), earning $7.7 million at the box office. Dickerson would go on to helm a handful of features with sociopolitical insights of their own, including “Futuresport,” “Good Fences,” and horror films “Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight” and “Bones.”
Nevertheless, it’s been 16 years since he last directed a theatrically-released feature length film (2004’s “Never Die Alone”). It’s certainly not due to a lack of ideas; he has several, as he told me in conversation in an unpublished interview several years ago, including an adaptation of late science fiction author Octavia Butler’s “Clay’s Ark.” But he’s been hampered by the age-old “lack of financing” dilemma that challenges so many filmmakers’ dreams. He did adapt another literary work in 2017 — Curaçaoan author Frank Martinus Arion’s “Dubbelspel” — as “Doubleplay,” which premiered on the festival circuit but never received a theatrical release. Directing for TV has provided Dickerson with the majority of his employment opportunities since “Surviving the Game,” helming episodes of countless hit serials like “The Wire,” “CSI: Miami,” “ER,” “Dexter,” “Treme,” “The Walking Dead,” “House of Cards,” “Bosch,” and much more. (Coincidentally, his 69th birthday is today, June 25.)
We may never know what sort of career Dickerson might have had if he’d made more movies over the past two decades, but “Surviving the Game” suggests he was ahead of the curve: “Get Out” may have made a lot more money and garnered critical acclaim, but its insights into the struggles of Black men fearing for their lives can be seen in a more elemental form throughout Dickerson’s film. It was radical then, downright timely today, and absolutely worth a second look.
“Surviving the Game” is streaming on Vudu.