Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: To kick off Black History Month, we’re looking back on genre films by unsung or underappreciated Black filmmakers.
Plenty of gifted cinematographers don’t seem interested in crossing over to directing—or wind up dabbling in their own projects in between higher-profile lensing gigs. But after an ongoing early collaboration with Spike Lee—shooting films as varied as Do The Right Thing, School Daze, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X—Ernest Dickerson made a permanent jump to the director’s chair, following his well-regarded drama Juice with a series of action and horror pictures, often with Black leads. Surviving The Game, his second film, is a particularly straightforward affair: one of cinema’s many riffs on the junior high English class staple “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Homeless and hopeless following the offscreen death of his family, Jack Mason (Ice T) is taking his tattered life one cigarette at a time, until Walter Cole (Charles S. Dutton) reaches out to him with an employment opportunity. After proving his physical stamina, Mason is hired as a vaguely defined assistant to a hunting party led by Thomas Burns (Rutger Hauer), only to find, as most new employees of lofty game hunters do, that he’s their intended target. For that matter, even if Mason was reporting to a standard, non-suspicious cubicle job, the presence of Hauer, Gary Busey, F. Murray Abraham, and John C. McGinley ought to tip him off that he’ll eventually be hunted for sport. (The group’s pre-hunt dinner conversation hints that cannibalism might also be involved, but the movie fails to commit on this front.)
The bad guys go full ham right on cue, Busey leading the way with a monologue about being pitted against his own dog in a childhood death match. As the would-be outlier, Dutton works especially well: Less than a year after giving Rudy Ruettiger memorable pep talks, he inspirationally harangues Mason into a cruel trap, then provides self-satisfied commentary about how adept he was at selecting a true challenge for the expedition. Ice T truly is the most dangerous game of all, even for a Rutger Hauer mastermind sporting Oakleys, a ponytail, and a headscarf.
Surviving The Game’s primary mission is to pit its hard-bitten nothing-left-to-lose hero against a bunch of rich assholes, then expedite the close calls and carnage. This is not the kind of movie that saves a fistfight in and around a burning building for its climax. Dickerson hustles the action along efficiently, not pausing for commentary when he can weave it in as he goes. In the opening sequence, he cuts between a homeless Black man foraging in city garbage pails and white men on a well-appointed (and thoroughly unnecessary) hunting trip; the juxtapositions aren’t subtle, but they’re tight and effective. Elsewhere, Dickerson uses familiar devices like point-of-view shots to illustrate characters’ sight lines, but he also favors some odder, more striking camera placements, like a recurring shot where the camera is positioned where a character’s body is about to land. Like those flying bodies, the arc of the movie is predictable, but satisfyingly engineered.
Not all of Dickerson’s subsequent entertainments work this well; his Damon Wayans/Adam Sandler buddy comedy, Bulletproof, has some of his signature style and trim running time, but it’s cluttered with miss-and-hit shtick. Like a lot of talented commercial directors who didn’t turn into blockbuster ringmasters, he now mainly works on television, with multiple episodes of Bosch, The Walking Dead, and David Simon prestige shows like The Wire and Treme on his lengthy CV. But there’s honor in the lean 95-minute genre exercise, too, and it would be great to see Dickerson return to this arena in the future. Think of the streaming programmers he could enliven.