From a Harlem theater in the late ‘60s observing the French New Wave greats to UCLA’s campus and the groundbreaking LA Rebellion movement, director Julie Dash has had her finger on the pulse of cinema during its richest decades.
The Queens-born filmmaker’s critically acclaimed 1982 short
Illusions, about an African-American woman who passes for white while working in the film industry during the 1940s, received the Black Filmmaker Foundation’s Jury Prize and shone a spotlight on Hollywood’s race problem. Dash’s debut feature Daughters of the Dust, a poetic tale of three generations of Gullah women, was the first movie by an African-American woman to receive a general theatrical release in the United States. The Library of Congress included it in the National Film Registry in 2004.
The director, who is a frequent university lecturer and continues to film the untold stories of black women, is co-hosting TCM’s Trailblazing Women segment about African-American independents on October 22, which includes Daughters of the Dust. Flavorwire had the privilege of speaking with Dash about her pioneering films, the struggles of navigating the Hollywood system, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.
Flavorwire: I know your love of film started in high school, during a film workshop at the Studio Museum in Harlem. You named Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as one of the movies that raised your awareness about the possibilities of film. How did you discover the Studio Museum?
Julie Dash: I went down to the after-school workshop with a friend. We thought it was a still photography workshop. We had no understanding or knowledge about motion picture production or cinematography. We thought that was going to be fun, so I wound up in there shooting with Bolex cameras and editing 16mm film on an upright Moviola, which is no longer in use. [laughs] I found it very fun and tactile. I was drawn to it right away. It was the first time I was looking at movies with subtitles and black-and-white movies. We were a little put off at first, but afterwards we were drawn into it.
What was it about a movie like Potemkin that drew you in?
The storytelling. The visual storytelling. It elicited such a visceral response to a people, a culture, a tradition, a style of film that I knew nothing about prior to sitting in that darkened room. It was a very powerful experience.
Literature, specifically literature by black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker, became a catalyst for a turning point for your work. You’ve even written a novel, a continuing story for Daughters of the Dust — and I think it’s great, because when you first started your film career, you’ve said several times that you felt unsure how to even write a script. What is the influence of these writings on your work?
By the time I was a freshman in college, we began reading the works of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. It touched a very, very familiar point. Of course at the time, this was the early ‘70s, there were no television shows or films that went into the intergroup experiences of being a woman, being African-American, and being from where I came from in New York. We related to these books very much, where we would even memorize passages from the books and act them out, because they nourished us. They nurtured and nourished us at the same time. We were being recognized in these stories. This was a totally new experience for me. I knew I’d love to see a film about these characters, about a situation like with Toni Cade’s anthology Gorilla, My Love. I wanted to see these stories depicted on the screen. At that point, I realized I wanted to learn how to write a screenplay and to work in the dramatic narrative film mode. We were just making documentary films at the time, newsreels and things like that.
Was the film scholar Clyde Taylor, who named the “LA Rebellion,” one of your professors?
He was not one of my professors, but he was available. He was there and writing about film at the time. I know he coined the term “LA Rebellion” while we were all UCLA, where I went to graduate school. One of my professors was Teshome Gabriel, an Ethiopian film scholar.
Your film Illusions is recognized as part of the LA Rebellion. What was the beginning of that movement like? How did things develop for you creatively and who were you collaborating with at that time?
I arrived in Los Angeles. I started to go to the American Film Institute. I was accepted into that as a producing and writing fellow. This was 1974. That same summer, I began working on an independent film being directed by Larry Clark, who was at UCLA and part of the LA Rebellion. That’s when I met everyone. I met Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and other people who were part of the LA Rebellion. But I was not at UCLA until 1976, when I completed my studies at AFI and went over. So, I was working with the LA Rebellion prior to me being a part of it and officially being a UCLA grad student.
Illusions really speaks to the way black actors and creatives were hidden and forced out — but they were used for their talents, such as their voices. What’s your connection to this?
I wrote Illusions and came up with the idea for it while I was a student at AFI, in their writing program — but it was not a project that I could make there. They only had five or six productions that were approved and certainly not [Illusions]. My writing teachers told me it was ridiculous.
This is not unusual. Everything I’ve made, pretty much, being a female filmmaker, my male teachers would say, “Why in the world are you wasting your time on that?” Illusions, Diary of an African Nun… everything was like, “Oh for god’s sakes.” That continues. When I was doing my segment of Subway Stories, I remember a lot of male crew members gritting their teeth when I had the flowers blowing across the subway track. They were looking at their watches like, you know, it’s time to go. That was the ‘90s. It continues. It’s something that female filmmakers, who were working and investigating the culture of women, faced and what we continue to face. There are different cultural set points, traditions, and all of these things that may not even interest the male counterparts and might even annoy them, because they may seem frivolous. Even with Daughters of the Dust, when we won the Best Cinematography award at Sundance in 1991, I would have people look me in the face at times and say, “Let’s not even talk about it. I don’t even know what the hell it’s about.” At that time, Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn was at Sundance, and it won the Special Jury Prize. It was given a standing ovation. Young, urban, male films were the thing in the ‘90s.
A film like Daughters of the Dust, I had one distributor tell me, prior to it being picked up by Kino, that it wasn’t an authentic African-American film. I had another major [exec], after it played 36 consecutive weeks at the New York Village East, he told me it was a fluke. These are the kinds of responses. I won’t tell you who said them, but these are direct quotes. In that same connection, I think I’m the only filmmaker coming off a stage at Sundance having won something that was not given another feature film — and then fast-forward to Ava DuVernay. Thank god she does not have to go through the same ridiculousness of people second-guessing.
A lot of people are wondering if the scale of DuVernay’s recent success, with Selma, will change the tide of Hollywood filmmaking. Will it become more inclusive to women and, specifically, black women? It brings to mind that there really isn’t, as you just said, much of a precedent for that kind of widespread recognition. Daughters of the Dust was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with a general theatrical release in the United States — and that was in 1992. It’s 2015, and even DuVernay has been making movies for a while now. How can audiences demand change when it comes to women in film and, specifically, women of color?
There are several things that make Ava the perfect storm, if you will. She’s brilliant. Her work is authentic. She’s an authentic person. She’s worked at marketing and in publicity for many, many years. She promoted many other filmmakers in many films, so she knows the territory. And then there’s social media, and she’s a social media genius. I was telling a friend that long before Selma even came out, “This is good. There’s a movement here.” You can wrangle the situation and take it leaps and bounds. So, we’re all very pleased.
One of the subjects that’s come up a lot during my interviews with filmmakers for the Trailblazing Women series is the importance of collaboration, mentorship, and support. You were talking about how people were down on your work. I was just thinking about how often men are responsible for making all these decisions about people’s success. It reminded me of something like the Martha Wash controversy, when she sang for the group C & C Music Factory in the ‘90s. She’s a “larger black woman” [referring to the racist stereotype], and she’s unashamedly played upon her size in her career, with the band Two Tons o’ Fun/The Weather Girls. But the execs presented a slender and younger black woman, Zelma Davis, to the public in the video for “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Davis can also sing — but the whole incident pitted women against woman, and black woman against black woman.
They still do that kind of thing. I’m a larger black woman. When Daughters came out, representatives from various companies approached me because they were doing these publicity things. But I didn’t fit the mold. It’s not just large corporations. Of course, I met with every Hollywood exec, and most of them were women. Some of them were women of color. They would still tell me, “Well, this idea that you have is not really fleshed out, this, that, and the other.” But all of these people are no longer in the industry. They went to other industries or they were phased out. But they were the gatekeepers, telling me my ideas weren’t ready. “You’re not ready yet, go work on it some more.” I just went and worked. I started doing music videos and commercials. I’m a filmmaker. I tell stories. And that’s what I want to do and what I’ve been doing away from that whole kind of spotlight. I have done quite a few movies that were “Movie of the Week,” and then that was phased out because of reality television. But I never stopped writing. I never stopped working. I never stopped teaching.
How can women filmmakers support each other creatively?
I think we are doing that now. Ava [DuVernay] is doing that very much. She’s full force with social media. She has her distribution company Array and the podcast [The Call-In]. When I did my Indiegogo campaign, she supported me. Dee Rees supported me. Filmmakers, we reach out to one another. I’ve always been very close to Euzhan Palcy, [Leslie] Harris. And, of course, Kathleen Collins was a tremendous influence. She welcomed me with open arms back in the day. We continue to do that. But we also need financing. You can have the best intentions, people, and all the digital cameras in your pocket, but if you do not have the financing to make these larger projects a reality, you’re still tap dancing. You’re still trying to make it all come together.
You’re co-hosting the African-American indie slate that will air as part of TCM’s Trailblazing Women series. Your film Daughters of the Dust is part of that. Tell me about some of the other films in the program.
We start off with Losing Ground by Kathleen Collins. She wrote, produced, and directed it in the early ‘80s. It’s a film that never got a major release, but it should have. It’s an amazing film, with a complicated story and complex characters. The dialogue is zippy and smart. It’s an exciting piece of work. If she was alive today, you’d know the types of films she’d still be doing. It was a tragic loss.
There’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. by Leslie Harris. And, of course, Ava DuVernay’s film Middle of Nowhere, which won Best Director at the Sundance film festival. I’m honored to be thrown in with that group of women. Each of our films are so different. The general public thinks that the black community is a monolith, and we’re all going to do the same films — a protest film or an urban film. But we’re so very different, and we have so much to say. Much of what you’re going to be seeing are voices that have gone unseen and unheard.
I’ve heard you say before about Daughters of the Dust that audiences and critics were so used to seeing stories about slaves, that when your film came out, many people didn’t know how to view the movie. They questioned the dress of your characters?
That was, I think, a Variety review. The film takes place at the turn of the 20th century. It just shows you how people snap back to [envisioning black] characters picking cotton or in an urban situation holding a gun. They didn’t quite know how to place these people. “Who are these people anyway?” Black people know who the Gullahs and Geechees were, but these people didn’t. “How could you do a film about this, and we don’t know about it?” There were so many different things thrown at me, including people saying, “Well, why didn’t you do a documentary about it first?” Another weird thing was, “Why do you want to do a film, an all-black film, why don’t you do a more diverse film?” It was like… what? I thought I was being diverse by showing a community of people who had not been on the screen before.
I’m hearing a whole lot of controversy about Black Lives Matter. People are saying, “Well, all lives matter.” And it’s just like, here we go again. Twenty-five years ago it was the same thing. People are being extremely insensitive when someone says, “I have not shared the same spotlight. You have not heard my voice. Hashtag, hear my voice now,” and then all of a sudden people are condemning them for saying it. It’s the same thing.
What is it like to see the public’s opinion of Daughters of the Dust change over time — to see it go from something people don’t really get to a film people are now recognizing as a major chapter in independent cinema?
I think having gone to film school, we are aware of historical situations. It’s not the first time. That’s why it’s important to do the film that you want to do — and then let people come to it. They may not get it now, but they will get it by and by. I’m not saying pop films aren’t fun, but every film is not a pop film. Every film isn’t taken from the headlines. Some films are made because they need to be made. They’re works of passion. That’s what Daughters of the Dust was. When people say, “Oh my god, I saw a film called Love Song that you made, and it’s so different from Daughters of the Dust,” and I’m like, “Yeah, why not?” [laughs] Stop trying to put me in this little box where I’ll being doing films about the Gullahs and Geechees from now on — even though I am doing a documentary right now called Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. It’s based upon a bestselling cookbook/memoir by Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. It was published in 1970.
I’m still optimistic. I’m very, very happy that TCM boldly stepped forward by curating this Trailblazing Women program, when other stations and networks have shied away from it. It’s pretty bold. I appreciate that. I think we all do. I think it will make a big difference in the lives of a lot of young women who are emerging filmmakers or just interested in seeing what else is out there. It expands the conversation.