Julie Dash’s landmark ‘Daughters of the Dust’ is reborn
NEW YORK (AP) — Julie Dash’s 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” was the first film directed by an African American woman to get a nationwide theatrical release.
When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, its director of photography, Arthur Jafa, won best cinematography. In 2004, it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Rapturously lyrical, wholly original, it’s been called “a landmark achievement” and “one of the most distinctive, original independent films of its time.”
And yet Dash — though she has since made a number of noted shorts and television films — hasn’t gotten another chance to direct a feature film.
“I’m the poster child for if you make a film that’s deeply authentic, you may be benched for many, many years,” Dash, 64, said in a recent interview. “If you make a film that’s more pop or trendy or fits into various tropes, people are more comfortable with you and your ideas.
“But that’s not the reason we became filmmakers.”
Dash never got the second shot she deserved, but “Daughters of the Dust” — widely cited as an inspiration to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” — has only gained in esteem over the years. For its 25th anniversary, Cohen Media Group has digitally restored the film. Beginning Friday with New York’s Film Forum, the restored “Daughters of the Dust” is heading back into theaters.
“It’s perhaps not as much as a shock to the system as it was for some in ’91, ’92 when we were seeing a lot of African-American male urban films,” said Dash, speaking by phone from Atlanta. “This was so very, very different from all that.”
“Daughters of the Dust,” set in 1902, is about the Gullah women of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. Their isolation from the mainland helped its people preserve much of their African heritage, culture and language.
Dash was partly inspired by writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Melville Jean Herskovits, whose “The Myth of a Negro Past” detailed the deep cultural roots that African-American slaves carried with them. In “Daughters of the Dust,” some are preparing for the post-Civil War migration north. It’s a moment of both loss and new beginning, rendered emotionally and poetically by Dash, a Queens native who grew up seeing foreign films at the Studio Museum of Harlem.
“I just wanted to do a film that was so deeply embedded in the culture, was so authentic to the culture that it felt like a foreign film,” says Dash. “I wanted to do my historical drama that reimagined and redefined what we read about history in a way that wasn’t always trying to explain away what was happening. When you have to keep explaining and explaining, it just kind of misses the mark for a lot of people who already understand the culture.”
Dash, who splits time between Atlanta and Los Angeles, currently teaches film at Morehouse College and Howard University. After attending AFI and UCLA in the ’80s, she was associated with the “LA Rebellion” movement of filmmakers that helped forge a new black cinema.
“Daughters of the Dust” — made with $800,000 and largely funded by PBS’s American Playhouse — was met with great reviews from some, but it was seen as too unconventional by a movie industry with narrow ideas about African American filmmaking.
She has since made TV films like the 1999 erotic thriller “Incognito,” the 2000 interracial romance “Love Song” and 2002′s Emmy-nominated “The Rosa Parks Story.”
“I’ve never really felt bad about not being able to do another feature film because so many good things have come from having made (‘Daughters of the Dust’), as it is,” Dash says. “But there certainly have been some frustrations in wondering why the doors didn’t open to me to do another feature like all the other people on the stage with us at Sundance.”
Dash has watched a new wave of filmmakers continue what she helped start. Ava DuVernay, she says, “changed the landscape of everything.”
“I feel like all of this is a continuum of ideas, a recreation of the imagination and redefining who we are,” says Dash.
Dash, remarkably, isn’t bitter. Her students, she urges down the same road: “Be bold. Expand your horizons.” If “Daughters of the Dust” is her legacy, she’s at peace with that.
“Maybe that’s my history,” Dash says. “Maybe that’s what I was here to do.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP