Filmmaker Julie Dash and I are sitting at a table in a Washington restaurant looking at black-and-white photos of an incredible moment in May 1990, when women filmmakers were invited to pitch to producers during a retreat at the Sundance Institute in Utah.
We’re poring over images of the gathering’s last day. There are group shots, photos that include filmmakers Neema Barnette (“Queen Sugar”) and Euzhan Palcy (“A Dry White Season”), and “The Women of Brewster Place” author Gloria Naylor (who died in September). Dash is there in the top row, wearing sunglasses.
She had come seeking support to finish her landmark film, “Daughters of the Dust,” which last year turned 25 and found itself in a renaissance, being discovered by a new generation. Beyoncé’s 2016 instant classic “Lemonade,” a paradigm-shifting visual album, gets credit. “Daughters” was trending on social media the night “Lemonade” premiered.
“Daughters,” entered in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2004, has been widely recognized as the cultural antecedent to Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated work.
The movie was digitally restored and released by Cohen Media Group in November. Dash was honored by the New York Film Critics Circle shortly after.
Talk about timing.
In 1990, Dash arrived in Utah with a trailer and script about a story of an early-20th-century Gullah family preparing to leave rural life. (Gullahs are descended from enslaved Africans brought to the Georgia and South Carolina coasts.) The tale’s narrator would be a yet-to-be-born child.
“What if an unborn child could come forward and help her parents sort out a problem in their marriage?” Dash recalled saying back then. She left Utah with partial funding from American Playhouse.
I had been part of the retreat’s support staff, driving attendees between events and their cabins.
In Washington, I give Dash the best of the photos of those young, wide-eyed women with big smiles and big dreams.
“The next time someone tells you there aren’t any women filmmakers of color ... ,” she says as she taps her finger on a photo, a bit of excitement in her voice.
The ponytail she wore then is now a golden mane of natural waves. She’s been teaching this school year at Howard University as its Time-Warner visiting professor at the newly named Cathy Hughes School of Communications.
For Dash, the comparisons to “Lemonade” feel natural.
“There’s a continuum of song, of manner, motor habits that went undercover for a while because everyone was trying to integrate and be part of the melting pot,” she says. “You don’t need to be in the melting pot. Why melt?”
We’re at the restaurant Mulebone for a memorial celebration of a mutual friend, culinary anthropologist and NPR correspondent Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, who died in September and is the subject of Dash’s current project, “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”
There is a circle of artists to which Dash and Smart-Grosvenor belong. Smart-Grosvenor was a consultant for “Daughters” and appears in signature scenes: Black women in white Edwardian dresses spread blankets on the beach. Lids are lifted from pots of gumbo for a final Sunday feast before the family leaves its home.
When “Daughters” was released in 1991, it resonated with African American women who, like Dash, were devoted readers of writers Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Naylor. They were, says Dash — adding Tananarive Due, Nigerian American Nnedi Okorafor and Octavia Butler — a “source of inspiration.”
That circle — which includes women and men — is witnessing its influence on pop culture.
The links between those early Dash days and now are more than theoretical.
My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama
I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils
Earned all this money, but they never take the country out me
I got hot sauce in my bag, swag
— “Formation,” Beyoncé
Melina Matsoukas is the Grammy Award-winning director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. Her credits include work with Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Missy Elliott and Bey’s sister, Solange Knowles. She’s also an executive producer for Golden Globe nominee Issa Rae’s HBO series, “Insecure.”
“I remember seeing this film [“Daughters ”] at a very young age,” Matsoukas says. “It really helped shape my ideas about what film could be because it felt so different than anything I had seen before. ... I was mesmerized by its distinct voice and how authentic ... it was to that time and place. It was reassuring as a black person to see that our stories have value on screen.”
In “Formation” Beyoncé could be channeling Yellow Mary, the independent and mysterious cousin in “Daughters” who has had her taste of mainland gumbo, which isn’t as good as the gumbo back home. Scorned by her high-hatted and pious relatives, she’s the bridge between their past and the future.
Arthur Jafa’s ties to “Daughters” are blood deep. He and Dash used to be married, and it’s their daughter, N’zinga, who inspired the idea of the film’s narrator.
Jafa won the cinematography award for his work on the movie at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. More recently he supervised its digital restoration. He also worked with fellow Howard alumnus and MTV Video Music Award winner Malik Sayeed on the “Formation” video.
We meet inside the old Corcoran Gallery of Art building. The Beaux Arts interiors of the former art museum are stripped to its bare walls and fixtures.
“Daughters” was always a celebration of the black aesthetic, a celebration of language, dress, sensibility. Dash, Jafa and the production designer, artist Kerry James Marshall (whose work has been on display at the Met Breuer in New York), brought the Peazant family to life.
It’s about what’s being passed down through the generations, Jafa says. “It’s like [jazz drummer] Max Roach said about rhythm. It’s both the most immaterial and the most felt of things at the same time. And so the same thing with aesthetics. If you understand black aesthetics as nothing but the values of black people, if you understand these things as real ... you should be able to move them from one place to the other, and they should have a concrete impact.”
I love you ’cause you’re mine. You’re the fruit of an ancient tree.
— Nana Peazant, “Daughters of the Dust”
“Every woman extends backward into her mother and forward into her daughter” is the Carl Jung quote Dash included in the dedication to her mother, Rhudine Henderson Dash, and N’zinga, in a book about the making of “Daughters.”
“One of my missions, my goals was to show women — like the women in my family — ... show them as they really are.”
Dash and her older sister, Charlene, grew up in Queensbridge public housing in New York. Their father, Charles Edward Dash, is the family’s connection to their Low Country South Carolina Gullah Geechee heritage. Her mother was active in the Black Women’s Club Movement, traveling to Washington and bringing home stories about Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Dash graduated from City College of New York with a film degree, then headed to the American Film Institute’s Conservatory.
For her screenwriting class, she wrote “Illusions,” a tale about a 1940s black woman passing for white and working in a Hollywood studio. “They told me it was ridiculous,” says Dash, who eventually made it as a short featuring Lonette McKee.
Dash found artistic freedom at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, alongside other students of color — Chicanos, Asians, Native Americans, others from the African diaspora. She and fellow students, including Haile Gerima (“Sankofa”), Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”) and documentary and multimedia producer Carroll Parrott Blue, wanted to create a cinema reflecting their worlds. They were dubbed the L.A. Rebellion.
“We didn’t call ourselves that,” she says. “We were just West Coast independent filmmakers trying to make films that spoke to our lives. I’m very comfortable being a black woman filmmaker. That’s my generation. ... That’s who I am. There’s a rhythm, there’s a beat, there’s an aesthetic that’s been missing from mainstream media, and now it’s just coming to bear with Ava [DuVernay], Dee Rees [“Pariah”], Gina Prince-Bythewood[“Beyond the Lights”] — wonderful young filmmakers. We’re starting to feel the pulse is changing.”
Some of the funding for “Daughters” stipulated a limited theatrical run in favor of a television premiere on PBS. “Daughters” was not a television movie, says Dash, and it lived vibrantly in art houses.
But that didn’t yield major studio offers.
“I’d pitch stories as late as 2011, when I pitched a miniseries about Eleanor Roosevelt’s battalion. The first comment is always, ‘I’ll have to check into it,’ ” Dash says.
“We pitched Octavia Butler’s books, Harlem Renaissance stories, contemporary love stories. Nothing that we pitched ever got through,” she says. “And then they would say that no one ever pitched to them. I still have those [rejection] letters.”
Since “Daughters,” and with the expansion of TV channels, Dash has written and directed for BET, Starz Encore, Showtime, MTV and HBO, and other projects, including “The Rosa Parks Story” for CBS featuring Angela Bassett. There are also music videos (for Tony! Toni! Toné!, Keb’ Mo’, Tracy Chapman, Sweet Honey in the Rock), commercials and public service announcements.
Though she’s at Howard this academic year, Dash is on the cinema, television and emerging media studies faculty at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
What a difference 25 years makes.
Ava DuVernay, who is golden in Hollywood these days, understands timing and opportunity. Her 2014 film “Selma” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. DuVernay is also a writer and director for the popular small-screen drama “Queen Sugar” on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) and directed a 2016 criminal justice documentary on Netflix, “13th,” which has received critical acclaim. And last year she became the first woman of color to direct a $100 million film, Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Madeleine L’Engle. Its star cast includes Winfrey.
What if Dash had had an Oprah Winfrey?
DuVernay does a roll call of the women directors who came before her.
“I look at my predecessors, the queens of black cinema — Julie Dash, Neema Barnette, Euzhan Palcy — women who didn’t have the opportunity to do what I do — and it’s just because of the time I’m in, not because of any special talent,” she says.
At Howard, Dash is teaching screenwriting and directing.
“My students want to give voice to their generation, how their generation sees the world, and how they work through their issues and problems,” she says. “My job is to listen and to guide them in technical issues of how they can go about presenting their voice best, but not to comment on anything of how they’re doing it. Because their goals are very different, as how they should be.”
Amanda Rhodes is a first-year master of fine arts candidate from Hyattsville, Md. She remembers being very young when her father took her to see “Daughters of the Dust.”
“It was something my dad encouraged me to watch because we have Gullah ancestry,” she says.
She realizes something else: Before today’s praise of “black girl magic” there was the “magical presence” of black women in “Daughters of the Dust.” The “larger-than-life feeling that Julie created, [that’s] trickled down to what ... Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is.”
Rory Padgett, a second-year graduate student, describes himself as a gay black filmmaker. What struck him in “Daughters,” he says, was how slavery was handled — not the usual visuals of violence, “the whip ... the noose ... the beatings.”
“Julie’s image of slavery is in indigo-stained hands,” says Padgett, who is taking a similar approach in his student film about police brutality. He wants to show the “impact of a loss” on a family rather than the murder.
Temitope Olutunmbi is also a second-year MFA candidate and the child of Nigerian immigrants. He wants to explore his Nigerian roots in his filmmaking.
“That’s not something a studio is necessarily going to sign off on, but fortunately I don’t need their permission to do that,” he says. He and his classmates see digital technology and streaming platforms as tools for creative freedom.
Dash recruited LaDawn Manuel, a second-year MFA candidate, to assist her with the photography for the Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor event at Mulebone. Manuel says she struggled with calling herself an “artist” and is more comfortable with the photographer label.
She’s more sure about this: “We couldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for the Julies who put in the work for us.”
“Daughters of the Dust” will be playing at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., starting February 17th.
Michon Boston is a writer, playwright and consultant for TV, new media and film. Comments: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.