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30 Nov. 2016

Julie Dash on blazing trails, female directors then and now


The current age of well-known female film directors courses amid topical conversation—namely, Ava Duvernay (“Selma”), Sanaa Hamri

Scene from Julie Dash's extraordinary, quintessential film, "Daughters of the Dust"

Scene from Julie Dash’s extraordinary, quintessential film, “Daughters of the Dust”

(“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”), Dee Rees (“Pariah”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Kasi Lemmons (“Talk To Me”), Lisa Cholodenka (“The Kids Are All Right”), and Debra Martin Chase (“The Princess Diaries”) among others.

Not so far, in the distant past, female-helmed films were a rarity.

Enter Julie Dash with her 1991 critically acclaimed visual and visceral female-driven “Daughters of the Dust.” Described as a period piece set at the dawn of the 20th century, “Daughters” is experiencing a revival of sorts.

It is set during a time where a multi-generational family in the Gullah community on the Sea Islands off of South Carolina – former West African slaves who adopted many of their ancestors’ Yoruba traditions – struggle to maintain their cultural heritage and folklore while contemplating a migration to the mainland, even further from their roots.

I spoke with Dash (“The Rosa Parks Story”) during the 2016 Mill Valley Film Festival–

Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: First topic, does it even seem as if 25 years have passed since the release of Daughters of the Dust?
Julie Dash: No it does not. I am sitting here looking at files from my involvement with Mill Valley’s Film

Dash was honored at the 2016 Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco

Dash was honored at the 2016 Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco

Festival back when I was at UCLA, even before Daughters… no, it does not feel like 25 years at all.
Today’s young audiences weren’t even alive when we were shooting that film which makes it somewhat strange, interesting and so exciting, really.
Talk2SV: Today’s celebration of this film is still quite endearing to many people; upon its release, it seemed to create a sense of discovery about black film that many other films did not do at the time. Would you agree with that observation?
Dash: Umm, yes, I guess so. It (“Daughters”) wasn’t what was expected. It wasn’t a film that people had

Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons

experienced before: the visuals were different, the story was different, and the non-linear story structure was different. It was not an urban drama and it was not an antebellum “slave” drama. It was post-slavery, turn of the century, set in the Sea Islands of the south, the low country South Carolina, a very different locale.

The story was about growth and change and, that too, was different to see these women with families who carried on traditions and beliefs that were different too. The Gullah dialect was spoken and that was certainly different.

So this film was taking a fresh look and reframing what we thought we knew about African Americans, African American history, as well as African American historical dramas as depicted in film.
Talk2SV: When you set out to tell that particular story, was there an audience you were speaking to directly and, if so, did the impact occur that you had hoped for?

Mira Nair

Mira Nair

Dash: The audience I wanted to speak to obviously, was African American and, everyone. But, more specifically, to African American women who loved the work of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and others. I made this film for the women of Gullah culture; I was very much a part of that community and the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez…that group. I was making this film for those audiences.
Talk2SV: Present day and back, say five to ten years ago, we are celebrating successes of some of your

cohorts, among them: the Katherine Bigelow’s, the Kasi Lemmon’s, the Ava Duvernay’s and others. Many female filmmakers attribute you to breaking through the ceiling that made way for them. Do you see yourself as having done such?
Dash: Actually, Katherine Bigelow was around for a long, long time…making great action films and zombie movies; filmmaker’s knew about Katherine Bigelow…I guess everyone else didn’t.

 

Ava Duvernay

Ava Duvernay

Talk2SV: Were I to rephrase the question, you cracked the ceiling in a way that created opportunities for many of the female filmmakers we celebrate today; do you see yourself as a trailblazer?
Dash: Yes and no. Yes, I was out there early on (making films) and I think they (Hollywood) didn’t know quite what to make of me or what to do with me or even if they wanted to do with me. I think in many ways, there were some–the curators of culture–who decided, if there is going to be a black woman filmmaker we’re going to create her in our own mind’s eye. Let’s put it that way.
Talk2SV: Interesting …

Katherine Bigelow

Katherine Bigelow

Dash: And, they proceeded to go about doing that. Then Ava Duvernay, Dee Rees, Neema Barnette (Woman Thou Art Loosed: on the 7th day) and the rest came through while no one was looking with their creative concept which is wonderful! Of course, there’s Gina Prince Blythewood (Love & Basketball) who is also a tremendous talent out there that doesn’t get enough credit for her work.
Talk2SV: And, the list of names of female filmmakers we celebrate continues.
Dash: Yes, Darnell Martin (Cadillac Records) is another one.
Talk2SV: Switching gears a bit, what are your views regarding independent filmmakers versus studio

Neema Barnette

Neema Barnette

filmmakers? What, in your view, is a discernible factor that the independent filmmaker provides within the landscape of storytelling?
Dash: Authentic voice. I mean, I would not call Ava Duvernay a studio filmmaker. Yes, she has been financed but her voice is very strong, very powerful, remains authentic and resonates. She is not someone who is controlled by the ‘curators of culture’ which is what I have been calling them of late.
Talk2SV: I like that phrasing – the curators of culture.
Dash: I used to call them the gatekeepers, but now, I’ve started going with the curators of culture.
Ava (Duvernay) is a very strong, independent spirited, independent voice. She is actually leading and instructing the curators of culture; for example, Queen Sugar (an OWN TV original drama), I cannot say enough great things about it. I mean, in a six months’ time period, she has done more than Hollywood has done in the last 100 years.
Talk2SV: That’s a big statement and a HUGE compliment.
Dash: And, it’s true. In the six months’ time that it took her to hire an all woman crew; produce an

Dee Rees

Dee Rees

episodic series–that’s more than Hollywood has done since the beginning of time and since the beginning of filmmaking.
Talk2SV: Historically, along with the financial security of a studio system, parameters for the filmmaker are often pre-set. Typically, the final product is different from the story the filmmaker sets out to tell. By comparison, when you look at the working relationship between Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network né Harpo Studios, here’s a financier (Winfrey) with the means, the might and the savvy.  Singularly, this entity has an appreciation for and understanding of stories often off the grid and radar–with infrastructure, experience and the vehicle to green light them.
Dash: Cojones …
Talk2SV: Yes.  And, to boot, an influential social media platform to get the word out.
Talk2SV: To me, and countless others, Julie Dash is a trailblazer with a crystallized perspective on what we are experiencing today.
Dash: I’ve been thinking about it for years.
Talk2SV: Thinking and doing. When you study the trajectory of the past 25 years in filmmaking, the

Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola

phenomenon of what you did with “Daughters of The Dust,” ushered in cachet and cache of new voices with resonance such as Rees, Duvernay, Prince-Blythewood and others to come. You were and remain the role model for them to scale.
Dash: I hope so.
Talk2SV: Absolutely. They have a model in you and Winfrey. And, the ascension…the prominence, evolved in our lifetime. Women that can write the check, understand the language, appreciate the context, and be familiar with the construct: their own Mount Rushmore.
Dash: Yes, it’s remarkable isn’t it? I can’t wait to see Ava’s “13th.” I’m expecting great stuff from it. Just the concept alone, the discourse we’ve been hearing people talk about over the last 50 years, had slavery ended or not. When you get someone who is focused enough to make it happen, to make this documentary and get it out there in such a beautiful way, from the clips I’ve seen, it’s just gorgeous.
Talk2SV: Reflectively, what do you appreciate most about your determination and your journey?
Dash: I appreciate the fact that I’m having an opportunity to share this particular film with a younger audience, an audience of “millennials” who were not even born when we were shooting. That’s a great opportunity to be able to hear their observations about how this film plays out for them.

Gina Prince-Blythewood

Gina Prince-Blythewood

Talk2SV: While this next question may in some context speak to personal vanity, it also speaks to the image identity (in “Daughters”) regarding the way “we” wear our hair and the various iterations thereof. What political statement do you make in the language of black hair?
Dash: Well, at that time [25 years ago] when “Daughters of the Dust” was first released, what we thought was contemporary hairstyles were ancient hairstyles. That was the point I was trying to make then; anything we think we’ve done is part of a continuum.

 

Sanaa Hamri

Sanaa Hamri

Talk2SV: And, 25 years from now…
Dash: I think the same thing perhaps–25 years from now will be even more interesting–because our hair is one of the ways we do our art, performance art. Anyway we wear our hair is always a performance.

Synopsis:
The film focuses on the women of the Peazant Family; the carriers of traditions and beliefs firmly linked to their African heritage. The story unfolds over the course of a family picnic, the last supper. Along the way, the film saturates us with impressionistic colors, African symbolism, Geechee‐Gullah rituals, cooking, dialect, and the sound of field cries, all expressing the complex resonances of the Lowcountry lifestyle.

Daughters of the Dust is set on Dawtuh, (Daughter) a small barrier island among the hundreds of Sea

Darnell Martin

Darnell Martin

Islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Fearing the extreme conditions on the island: heat, insects, and the threat of yellow fever, landowners live across the river on the mainland. The inhabitants of Dawtuh, mainly African American, have remained isolated and insulated from the mainland since the very firstAfrican Captive was brought ashore.

At the heart of the film, Daughters of the Dust is a story about a family coming to grips with both the past and the precarious present. The film opens with the Peazant family contemplating and celebrating their decision to leave Ibo Landing, to embark upon a new life on the mainland. Nana Peazant the family matriarch refuses to leave because of her deep reverence for the island, the ancestors buried there, and a sense that the North will not be “the land of milk and honey” her progeny believe it will be.

The structure of the film follows the pattern of the West African Griot, a commissioned artist who recalls and recounts a family’s history for formal occasions. The story of the Peazant family is recalled, remembered, and recollected as a circular, non‐linear, dramatic narrative that evokes the oral tradition of ancient African storytellers.

Julie Dash-Banner Headshot2008

More on Julie Dash:
Julie Dash is the Distinguished Professor of Cinema, Television and Emerging Media (CTEMS) at Morehouse College. From 2013‐2016, shew as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston, in the Department of African American Studies, and with the Avery Research Center for African American Studies. In 2013, she held the Bob Allison Chair in Media at Wayne State University. Dash has written and directed for CBS, BET, ENCORE STARZ, SHOWTIME, MTV Movies, and HBO; winning two NAACP Images Awards, and a Director’s Guild of America nomination for The Rosa Parks Story, which Angela Bassett received an Emmy nomination for her starring role. Dash’s other films include Incognito, Funny Valentines, Love Song, and Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground. Her work as a film director includes the design of a theme park pavilion for Disney’s Imagineering; and na ofeilm maded for The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Museum, Brothers of the Borderland. Her work includes music videos, documentaries, PSA’s, industrial documentary films, and commercial spots for Fortune 500 brands, i.e., Coca‐Cola and GMC.

In 2015, Dash was a part of the Trailblazing Women franchise on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and co‐hosted one evening with Illeana Douglas. Dash has a novel published by Dutton Books; and The Making of Daughters of the Dust, published by The New Press. Recent retrospectives of her narrative film work include screenings in Beijing, Hong Kong 5 University, China, Charleston, SC, Creteil, France, Taipei, Taiwan, and Philadelphia. Dash also served as chair of the International Jury at the Kerala International Film Festival in India.

Julie Dash is currently in production on a feature documentary based upon Vertamae Smart‐Grosvenor’s bestselling work, Vibration Cook: or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. Smart‐Grosvenor is a world‐renowned author, performer, and chef from rural South Carolina, who has led a remarkably unique and complex life as a culinary anthropologist and NPR correspondent.

Ms. Dash earned her MFA in Film & Television production at UCLA; received her BA in Film Production from CCNY, and she was a Producing and Writing Conservatory Fellow at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies. When not working on her projects, Ms. Dash is a frequent lecturer at many leading universities, in the United States.

Dash is the recipient of a USA Artists Fellowship (2007), Fulbright Fellowship (1991), Guggenheim Fellowship (1981), and Rockefeller Fellowships (1989 & 1991).

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is a Cohen Media Group release, runs for 112 minutes, is in English, and is not yet MPAA rated

About the author

Sandra Varner has had her hands on the pulse of the entertainment industry and lifestyles coverage for decades, staying current, always.

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