Many names get tossed around by cinematically savvy people when you bring up great American ’90s independent cinema. You have the usual suspects: Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, and Spike Lee. Maybe next you’d get to some deep cuts like Hal Hartley, Jamie Babbit, and Whit Stillman to round off the conversation. One name, however, that should be up front and center amongst these others is one that was seemingly forgotten by some until recently. She had a singular vision that lit the way and inspired many filmmakers after her to pursue and push creative professional boundaries that hadn’t seemed possible for so long. She brought a film into being that was far ahead of its time by looking back at what had come before and in doing so told a story about the hardship and joys of the future. That director is Julie Dash.
Julie Dash was born and raised in New York City. While she was a senior in high school she attended film workshop at The Studio Museum in Harlem. There she encountered her initial exposure to foreign film (Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was her first taste) and found that she much more enjoyed the challenging and engaging nature of international offerings to what was playing in the mainstream American movie theaters at the time. From there she attended City Colleges and got her B.A. in film production. After this she was granted a fellowship at the prestigious American Film Institute. While serving as a Fellow she was selected as an intern on the seminal television miniseries Roots. During this time she would notice things about the portrayal of the African American experience she didn’t enjoy. “The world view is just myopic,” she said in reference to seeing how the slaves portrayed would have hairstyles done in the same way as their masters.
Next she would go on to study at UCLA for an M.F.A.. She would become a part of what was called “the L.A. Rebellion,” a generation of young black filmmakers who studied at UCLA during the late ’60s to the late ’80s. While there was no particular goal to the L.A. Rebellion, they were a group of like-minded people who wanted to make films as a response to traditional Hollywood filmmaking, the social unrest of Los Angeles, and the country as a whole, while not delving into Blaxploitation. Dash shared those hallowed halls with filmmakers such as Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Haile Gerima (Sankofa), and Larry Clark (Passing Through).
Dash herself would make such films as Four Women and Diary of an African Nun during this time. In 1982 she challenged the portrayal of mixed race black women called Illusions, a movie about two black women who pass for white at a Hollywood studio. The film was a direct response to the “Tragic Mulatto” portrayed in films like Imitation of Life and Pinky. These are characters that are portrayed as victims because they’re seen as neither white nor black and have no place in society. Dash took this trope and subverted it by taking the victimhood away from these characters and portraying them as “guerrilla fighters,” because they were inside the system shifting it. This was an instance of her taking historically damaging and shortsighted portrayals of black people and making them into something new and empowering. So in 1991, after years of research and securing funding from PBS, she would take that idea and pivot it to feature length with the first film made by an African American woman to ever get theatrical distribution: Daughters of the Dust.
Daughters of the Dust tells the non-linear story of the Peazant family in 1902. The Peazant family are a part of what are known as Gullah people, West Africans that settled on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The younger family members are ready to migrate north in hopes of drinking in some of the “milk and honey” the mainland has to offer. Not everyone is so keen on leaving this land they call home, in particular the family matriarch Nana Peazant, a woman who lived as a slave and only wants the younger generations to take some of their past with them. “I’m trying to give you something to take north with you, along with all your great big dreams,” declares Nana Peazant to her grandson. She represents the past that gives the current generation the foundation upon which they’re able to build those dreams. The film and Julie Dash’s career are the foundations directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dee Rees, and past IU Cinema guest Ava DuVernay (the first black woman to ever helm a $100 million movie) were able to use so that they could have more. Daughters of the Dust has even entered the public conversation again as it heavily influenced one of this year’s best films, Beyoncé’s visual album and tone poem Lemonade.
While Hollywood did not give her the respect and opportunities she deserved after Daughters of the Dust, Dash found outlets to continue making her art. She worked in television, making the TV movies Love Song and The Rosa Parks Story, and directed the segment titled “Sax Cantor Riff” from HBO’s SUBWAYStories: Tales from the Underground.
She also has an upcoming documentary that continues to look into Gullah culture further by focusing on culinary anthropologist and author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor called Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, along with plans to make a movie about a family of traveling black magicians and a miniseries about the African American women who served overseas in World War II. She continues to work and strive for visions of black people as more than just victimized figures of the past. In doing so, she gives something for future filmmakers to surpass and elevate.
Julie Dash is scheduled to be present at IU Cinema for three public events on December 8 and 9, 2016 during the Daughters of the Dust 25th Anniversary Film Series: L.A. Rebellion Shorts including Four Women, The Diary of an African Nun, and Illusions; a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture in the form of an extended, on-stage interview led by IU Media School’s Terri Francis; and a screening of Daughters of the Dust.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.