Without Living in the Folds of Our Wounds: A Conversation with Julie Dash

The director of "Daughters of the Dust" talks about the racist and capitalistic film industry and her upcoming Angela Davis biopic.
A.E. Hunt

Julie Dash

Nearly 30 years ago, Daughters of the Dust ruptured the fixed line of film history. It was the first film directed by a Black woman to see theatrical distribution in the United States. It fit neither the Black history Hollywood co-opted, nor the modern Black story they allowed (urban peril). Daughters of the Dust portrayed a day in the life of the Gullah-Geechee community off the coast of South Carolina through their circular perception of time, a past, present and future that runs concurrently. Nana Peazant, the old matriarch, urges her successors to cling to their roots, to hang on to her, as each body holds both “the last of the old and the first of the new.” The younger generations plan to run up the river north, leaving behind Ibo Landing, home to centuries of their ancestors. An unborn child narrates from the future and dawdles through the present day, 1902, while Nana clutches the ground by the gravestones.

Writer/director Julie Dash does not frame the dispersion of the Gullah community as purely tragic or Nana’s old ways as purely outmoded. Their differences are not so plain that either side doesn’t understand and still appreciate the other. Nana is exhausted by the new ways pervading the old, but she accepts it as hard, inevitable and beautiful. The divide is never inflated to the kind of conflict often perpetuated in movies. Daughters of the Dust is inimitable, like all things that rupture a fated course. It has not been replicated to this day.

Dash is one of the preeminent figures of the L.A. Rebellion, the Black anti-Hollywood movement that came to fruition at UCLA Film School between the 60s and 80s. Since her first short films (the venerable Diary of an African Nun, Relatives, Illusions, et cetera), Dash has continued her fight to widen the scope of Black film in an industry that spends itself to narrow it. No one would fund the next Julie Dash feature film; executives were scared by what they didn’t know from record to be lucrative. There was no reference for anything Dash proposed, nothing to mollify their cowardice; so they retreated to the racist track record at the industry’s base. But Dash didn’t relent. She directed the TV movies Funny Valentines, Incognito, Love Song, and The Rosa Parks Story, a $1.5 million immersive film exhibit, Brothers of the Borderland, commissioned by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, short films, documentaries and commercials. Today, she’s finally in development on her second feature film, an Angela Davis biopic, fighting the same fight to make it right.

On Juneteenth, Julie Dash talked to us about the racist, capitalistic, and ineffectual model of the film industry that tries to hold her down, about how perceptions of her seminal work Daughters of the Dust evolved over time and her hopes for reform going forward.

NOTEBOOK: Are you doing anything for Juneteenth?

JULIE DASH: Not in the daytime but I’m doin’ somethin’ for the West Coast, so that doesn’t happen until later tonight because of the time change. I’m doing a film program. So, tell me a little about what you’re doing.

NOTEBOOK: There’ve been so many “Best Black Films To Watch Now” lists, but little interest in reaching out to hear from the filmmakers on that list, so that’s what I’m doing.

DASH: I do understand. “This is my favorite. This is my favorite.” It’s all so subjective. It’s lovely, but… [laughs] If I were to make a favorite list it’d be all foreign films, even today. [laughs] But let me not go there on Juneteenth.

NOTEBOOK:Just four years ago you said, after watching some films on TV for Black History month, that a lot of popular Black films were still repeating that same “Jane Pittman” ending. Do you still see that today?

DASH: [laughs] Did I say that? Sounds like me. But not with Ava Duvernay’s films, no. I think everything’s changing since the murder of George Floyd. I think Hollywood is taken aback and they’re saying, “Oh we didn’t know, we didn’t know!” That’s what I’ve been telling you! All the memos I’ve been sending! [laughs] Hollywood has been making films, even if they’re Black films, through the eyes of white producers for their white viewers. So our films were like Barbie dipped in chocolate. [laughs] Why can’t we say what we want to say? Why are we being censored all of the time when it’s something so benign, when it's just something to do with our culture or history? It’s just like the thing with Trump saying he’d never heard of Juneteenth. Why!? [laughs] How could you even say that out loud? How can he be so insensitive and ignorant? This is something that Black people have been celebrating since Juneteenth! Since 1865! He could have said, “I don’t know [what it is], tell me.” But no, he had to take it to another level and say “I just made it famous by saying I never heard of it.” It’s just so myopic and he’s not the only one.

Hollywood can be just as myopic. Even with the Black producers and executives that they have. The Black executives, for the most part, follow exactly what the higher ups say. You go sit in an office and it’s the same thing over and over. They’re all eager and say, “My door’s wide open to you,” but when you talk to them about something they’ve never heard of or don’t understand they almost treat you like you’re a threat. They love putting out misinformation that’s just infuriating. They want to reimagine our history and say it’s the next best thing. The historical films, I know those filmmakers, and it’s just like, oh my god. Oh. My. God.

NOTEBOOK: Which is something you’ve explored since your thesis film Illusions:the distortion of the film industry and the real world going hand in hand.

DASH: Filmmakers like myself, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, they’re not hiring us because we have a different story to tell. It’s almost like there was a blackout against film school graduates. They wanted people who were actors or comedians—and I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this—but they wanted people with no film background, no historical background, people without the level of education we had. So the producers tell them to follow the bouncy ball. “This is what’s going to happen in history. You take so and so and she runs through the woods,” et cetera. It’s like, what the fuck? [laughs] Excuse me? Is that Frederick Douglass over there? No connections, everyone’s an individual. It’s like Ayn Rand’s history: individuals. Like, let’s give him the Academy Award for this individualistic, existential take on slavery. What the fuck? [laughs] What. The. Fuck.

NOTEBOOK: I’ve encountered a pattern in the reviews of Daughters of the Dust, The Glass Shield, and even Moonlight (New York Times), where white film journalists are surprised these films had a unique stylization and weren’t shot as cinéma vérité. There’s something patronizing in that surprise.

DASH: That’s from the point of view of white privilege. I’ve been asked by journalists why I hadn’t made a documentary about the Gullah Geechee people first. Uh, because I wanted to make this film! There are plenty of documentaries about it. Basically they’re telling you, “Do not tell me anything that I do not know. You have to educate me first.” I have to educate them so that they can understand the movie. Maybe this movie was not made for you, have you ever thought about that? I’m trying to take the conversation to another level. It’s not just that it’s for all Black people or people of color, it’s not a sophomoric conversation we’re having. But they don’t want to allow that and are offended by it.

Another thing is that, because I did Daughters of the Dust, I’m supposed to be this Earth Mother that only does these historical dramas with swirling dresses. It’s like, no! I’m a filmmaker fool! [laughs] I wanna make sci-fi! I write westerns! I write stories. But I got locked into this. It’s just very myopic and anti-creative, the people they have in charge of these things. They think you have one story. It’s very weird for us, but it’s been going on for many years. And then with Barry Jenkins they wanted his second film to be more like Moonlight! [laughs] He’s already said that, sang that song, did the dance and now he’s onto something new.

NOTEBOOK: Your experimentation with frame rate and shutter speed is a throughline in your shorts, TV movies, music videos. In Daughters of the Dust the technique often indicates when the past or future are interacting with the present.

DASH: Yes, but also it’s almost like a brain freeze: remember this. This is important. This is a snapshot. The girl looks over her shoulder. This is how I’m going to remember her. We were using a prototype computer for doing that on the beach, but now you can do that in post real easy. [laughs] You can change the framerate and stuff. But the cinematographer Arthur Jafa and I had talked so much about how things would move. It’s kind of like a Dub version of things. We didn’t even have the verbiage for it, we just knew the music and the response we wanted from the audience.

Kerry James Marshall was the production designer and now Kerry blew up! [laughs]

AJ’s big too because he won the Golden Lion last year [for The White Album]. He’s gonna’ be directing a film soon.

NOTEBOOK: You and Arthur Jafa compared making Daughters of the Dust to playing jazz, but did you prearrange the structure of any of the concurrent past, present and future?

DASH: It organically evolved while we were down in pre-production. We’d find locations, there’d be silence, and you’d look at another person and nod. Or something would happen while we were shooting a scene. I would nod and we knew exactly what to do, whether to continue shooting or to pan over to something else. We were so in tune to the environment, the story, tone, and tempo that that’s where the “playing jazz” came from. Jafa said that years ago and now a lot of people say it. [laughs] We were crazy then, but now it’s like okay. We were crazy with the Dub version of the motions. It kind of puts people into a meditative state. They’re out of it, and then they come into it, segue out, come in et cetera. We were just playing with all kinds of ways to enlighten the senses with images and sound. For the music, John Barnes and I hired a Nigerian talking drummer and had him tap out “Remember me. Remember my name.” All kinds of little things we added to resonate, and I was able to do all of that because it was an independent film. If it was a studio film they’d say, “I don’t know. There’s no reference to it! You can’t do that! It will take us out of the focus!”

In all honesty, I’ve done like five Movies of the Week: Love Song, Incognito, Funny Valentines, The Rosa Parks Story, and those things would come up every time I tried to infuse it with more resonance. So you have to do it silently, without letting them know, otherwise they’d try to stop me from making the film. I once got a fax to my trailer that said, “Stop making it so beautiful. This is not a feature film, it’s a television movie.” Why do they do that? There’s no answer to it. If you dig deep first they’ll say they didn’t do it and if you persist they’ll say, “I was just kidding.” Why would you send someone a fax saying that? That happened on The Rosa Parks Story.  And there was more crazy stuff than that. It’s cultural. It has to do with legacy. They want me to make the film that’s in their head not the one that’s in mine.

I’m running into the same things with the Angela Davis biopic, which has been in development for over two years.

NOTEBOOK: How’s that going?

DASH: It’s going. It’s good to make the movie. But it’s so hard for them to grasp who she really is. It’s hard for them to grasp that she was trilingual—she spoke English, German, French—and that she’s known all over the world. Some of it has to do with the youthfulness of the development people. All they know is Angela Davis on the poster, wanted by the FBI. They want to rush to that. But it’s like, no man, she was in Paris with the Algerians, she was in Germany. “That’s really not important.” Are you fucking kidding me? She was in Helsinki for the World Youth Peace Festival in 1963. Years later she became part of the Che-Lemumba club of the Communist Party. “Why do we have to show that?” Because it’s not a part of the regular Communist Party.

It has to do with the way people are educated in this country. They don’t learn the truth, they learn a cursory knowledge of history, that’s their foundation, and you can’t challenge it. The woman has an autobiography from the 1970s, edited by Toni Morrison, it’s sitting right there and they’ll tell me, “Let's just focus. Lets just get her to Los Angeles.” It’s a blind determination to tell the story that’s played inside their heads since they’ve been children.

NOTEBOOK: Did you ever run into Angela Davis at UCLA or see her speak there?

DASH: Yeah! I met her in the 90s. We were outside of Paris doing a film panel—we went on a television show together. She has a huge following in France, so to eliminate France from her life in the movie—she spent years over there. One of the things that had the most profound impact on her life was that she knew the four little girls who were blown up in the [16th Street Baptist] church during the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t want to get too deep into that, but some amazing things have been said about that. [laughs] Let’s stay out of that because my best producer would have a fit if I told you. [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: How do you think the accessibility of cameras and social media makes today’s Black Lives Matter movement different from other revolutions in history?

DASH: You’re seeing what people have been saying for years. The lynching never stopped, there’s just new ways of lynching people, although people were lynched last week. I’m in Atlanta, 14-15 days after George Floyd, a guy is shot as he’s running away. Didn’t you get the memo? The protestors are just around the block and you did it anyway? The mindset is so profound. “This individual who’s sleeping in his car should die because he won a tussling match with me.” I don’t think he even gave it a second thought. It’s like a video game. They have the gun and you don’t.

NOTEBOOK: And to do it shamelessly into camera...

DASH: The police will take care of them, they might get a little bad publicity, but they’ll be back on the force somewhere and probably get a promotion. White fragility, that’s what the whole Trump rally was about, people lining up days in advance to get Covid [laughs]. “You can’t tell me what to do, I do what I want. I'll come out there three days in advance!” You’ve got three days extra to get Covid! [laughs] It’s damned and determined, “I’m American and this is my protest, because I’ve been emasculated by the Black Lives Matter protest at the boulevard leading up to the Whitehouse.” [laughs] It’s hilarious. I love it.

NOTEBOOK: People walked out of Daughters of the Dust and Illusions. What do you think happened inside those individuals when they left the theater?

DASH: [Daughters of the Dust] was 30 years ago. What was in the theaters then? It was Ernest Dickerson’s Juice, Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn… All of these films were bucketing Daughters of the Dust. I had someone tell me it was not an authentic African American film because, in their mind, we were out at the plantation picking cotton. It had to be a movie about that or an urban thug. There was nothing in between, you could not even visualize it. Daily Variety wrote a review saying it looked like a buncha people runnin’ around with Laura Ashley dresses on. It actually became offensive because I wasn’t pointing the finger at anyone, it was just about what this family was doing. “How dare you not call me white! How dare you not talk about race! How dare you not include me in your film! How dare you do something beautiful with Black people.” That’s that white fragility. It’s weird.

So years later, I just have to tell you, movie critics have come back to me and apologized. They said they were wrong at the Sundance screenings. They gave Straight Out of Brooklyn a standing ovation while I was on stage with Matty Rich. Dust got Best Cinematography and Brooklyn got the Audience Award Jury Prize.

NOTEBOOK:How long did it take them to come around and apologize?

DASH: 20 years. I think they had been talking about it amongst themselves too. Daughters of the Dust had ruptured their reality of what Black film was and could be just like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. When I first saw Killer of Sheep I assumed it was a female filmmaker because it was so soft and tender. So there are a lot of assumptions.

As filmmakers at UCLA we were encouraged to explore. Our job was not to make a television episodic while we were there. Everyone! It wasn’t just the Black filmmakers, it was the white filmmakers too, we were all trying to explore new ways of telling a story. We worked on each other's films and we challenged ourselves. Then when we got outside people were insulted by us trying to tell new stories. People were actually angry. It’s like, why are you mad at me? [laughs] It’s tough to talk about. [Charles Burnett] told me he was working on some show and the Black actors were disgruntled when he showed up on set like, “Why is he here?” Giving him a hard time. What’s going on here?

Then we went to some awards presentation and I was sitting next to Charles. A Black director was going on and on about how he didn’t go to film school, how he didn’t need film school because he “made films from the heart.” Afterwards, at the cocktail reception I said, “Charles, what is this anger about film school students?” It was at a time that the L.A. Rebellion was getting a lot of press. Having come up through AFI undergrad and UCLA grad school, we learned that there was no competition. If there’s any way to help each other we would. We worked on all of each other's films. As artists, the only competition you have is with yourself. The challenges you put before yourself, the tasks you want to see completed. There’s no such thing as competition. It’s not in our worldview.

People always ask me, “How do you feel about so and so doing this film and you’re not?” Well, it’s wonderful. It’s a miracle any Black made film gets made. It’s just a miracle. You don’t steal each other’s work, you can’t be in competition with others, you just have to do your own thing. We have that understanding, but a lot of people do not, they pit one person against the other. It’s the antithesis of making art. People say, “Well it’s a matter of Art vs. Commerce.” Not really. Calling it art doesn’t mean it won’t be profitable or travel the world.

NOTEBOOK: Some of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers have said they tried to stretch their time at UCLA so that they could keep making films with the school’s resources, as the industry outside felt so futile. Did you do that?

DASH: I don’t know about trying to stay longer. Years later I walked into Melnitz Hall and recognized the smell. I had an anxiety attack because I remembered it. It’s kind of a funky smell, knee grease and body odor from people editing. It was like, oh my God, I have to get out of here. [laughs] It’s that time in life where you have relationships, you break up, you’re working as a receptionist or a caterer—you’re doing everything to make your film. It’s very traumatic. [laughs] Once you’re done you're done. So I wouldn’t say we were trying to stay, it was like we couldn’t get out of it. It was like being incarcerated. Self-incarceration at Melnitz. [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: Are you still trying to get some of the films you’ve been trying to get made like Digital Diva off the ground?

DASH: We changed the name to Cypher. Now I’m with CAA and we’re revisiting a lot of the things that I wrote a long, long time ago. I have these young Black agents now so they’re very excited about it. That’s a whole other story, Black Hollywood years ago. In many ways there were certain executives who fought so hard to create their own Julie Dash, their own Charles Burnett in their eyes. They didn’t want us, they wanted someone of their own creation, and they did create these people. Those people are all working.

Every damn thing changed when Ava Duvernay came on. She switched from being a publicist to a filmmaker, out there with the Queen Sugar. Everything changed because she allowed all of these women to flow through—she called them sugar babies—to the DGA. Now everyone’s trying to act like they’ve been inclusive over the years. No! No! No! If anything they promoted Black males, but not Black females. There’s a bunch of Black female executives who completely close their doors to us, and I think you know who I’m talking about.  They’d say publicly, “Black  filmmakers never pitched anything to us.” Well I have names, dates, and places that I can’t count.

They were not interested. They came from business and tried a risk management thing. “Who can I promote that’s going to help me make it in this business?” Their calculations were wrong because they didn’t understand why we existed. They were going to drive a culture that they predetermined as important. Pimpin’? Push that. Thugs in the street, get that. They were trying to get ahead of the curb from behind the curb. The people that were ahead of the curb they wouldn't have. But it’s like Mother Nature didn’t like that. [laughs] They were only successful for a beat in time because they miscalculated. Now they’re trying to have Zoom meetings with Black women talking about inclusion, but it’s like, no baby, you were the ones shutting the doors. [laughs] You’ve been the head Negro in charge and now you’re saying this?

NOTEBOOK: Are you hopeful for the future with the massive push for systemic reform happening now?

DASH: I am hopeful, because we’re seeing wonderful LGTBQ+ programs, Ava Duvernay. Things are expanding and opening up and all these people who made wrong calculations are kind of on the fringes now. I hope they learn that it’s not up to one individual to determine culture, what’s hidden and what’s not. I’m glad on many levels.

Scaring young filmmakers from doing anything like Daughters of the Dust because they’ll be marginalized and not be able to make hip movies—just because that was my case does not mean it will be so in theirs. It was a shock to the system. This is 30 years later. Young filmmakers need to push boundaries. That’s their job as an artist and a filmmaker.

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