One great shame of American cinema is that we didn’t get theatrical releases of Julie Dash films in the 25 years since Daughters of the Dust. But that didn’t stop Dash from making plenty of exceptional work over the years — sometimes under difficult circumstances. She even made a few superior TV movies along the way. We recently talked to her about both Daughters of the Dust and some of those lesser-known later films. (Read Melissa Anderson’s review of Daughters of the Dust.)
I always find it odd nowadays when people who are interested in film haven’t heard of Daughters of the Dust or Illusions. I was in college when Daughters came out in 1991. And we had watched Illusions, your 1982 short, in my Introduction to Film class. Daughters played for months in New York — a real phenomenon.
It did turn into quite a year for us. As an independent filmmaker, to tell you the truth, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m not ready for all of this. I just want to make movies!” A lot of filmmakers nowadays are actors, or comedians, or this and that, and I’m none of that. I’m just a filmmaker. And I was really not used to being in the public eye like that. But it was life changing, to say the least. What a time of discovery and wonder.
Were you taking Hollywood meetings?
I was taking a lot of meetings, but nothing ever came of it. The way people used to look at me from across the desk — like, “So, you’re the one who did that.” I remember one young woman. We were shaking hands as I was leaving their office; she said, “Oh you’re not so bad.” It was almost like she had to take the meeting with me but was actually kind of frightened. A lot of industry people didn’t know what to make of the film or of me.
Illusions was set in the film industry. Years later, when you were having more industry interactions in the wake of Daughters, how did the reality of the industry match your earlier conception of it? Was it different?
No. In fact, it was even more so and still the same. Now that I know more, I could redo Illusions and put in even more things that I’ve learned. It was kind of shocking. Let’s just leave it at that.
Daughters, while it does have a story, is not so much a movie you follow as it is a movie you luxuriate in, just spending time with these people.
Many people say, “I kind of drifted off and thought about my family.” This is part of the experience. It is not by accident or happenstance. I wanted the film to be like a widescreen tableau, to make you feel like you’re looking at a scrapbook, a family album. And the music. We have talking drums throughout. Audio of a Nigerian master drummer playing, “Remember me, remember my name.” Of course, an average person on the street cannot understand talking drums, but I do believe it has resonance. We take them on a journey where they don’t really know what’s going on, and it’s not a Western plot — which is by design.
I was just up in Northern California. And there was a young girl in the audience who said, “Clearly, there was no script, and the film was improvised.” And I just said, “No, dear, there was a full script. You can’t have this many people out on a beach with no idea of what they’re going to say and do.” I think so many people have preconceived notions — well, I know they do — about African-American culture, about who we are, or why we are. And another woman in that same audience — I think it was her professor — kept wanting me to explain why they were wearing white. Number one, it was post-slavery period. It was post-Gibson Girl, and they were wearing Gibson Girl-style dresses. Some of them were seamstresses. It was a family celebration, to say goodbye. Why would they be wearing work clothes? You usually had two outfits: Your Sunday clothes, which you’re going to be buried in, and your work dress.
This came up in Daily Variety 26 years ago, too, where the reviewer said it looked like a Laura Ashley commercial, which was so snide. It was beyond their imagination to be able to see African American women in white dresses on a beach. She also mentioned the suits that the men were wearing. None of the suits were new. They were very old, and frayed, and all that, but that was not in the data box. For them, it was like “Error, Error. Why is she doing this?” It was not anything that they’d seen before pertaining to African Americans in the South. And no matter how many times I explained that we worked from photographs that were taken in 1902, they had a problem with it.
In this and a number of your other films, movement feels very important. The shorts Four Women and Praise House are, in part, dance performances. In Daughters, too, it’s in the way a character carries himself, or the way you use slow motion and step-framing. There’s a lot of great dialogue, but there is also a silent movie-like quality.
Well, I’m a film-school rat! We took on a lot of things with that little movie. We played with the motion, to create visceral responses. We’d start out at 24 frames a second, and then fugue into 60 frames a second — almost like the effect you’d have in dub music.
Let’s talk about film school. You went to AFI and then UCLA. You’re identified with the “L.A. Rebellion” filmmaking movement, which was focused in and around UCLA. But the way people often refer to it nowadays, it makes it sound like this small group that emerged briefly. Reading more about it, I was really struck by the fact that this was a program stretching across many years, with lots of very different filmmakers coming through.
Yeah, absolutely. And of course at the time, we didn’t call ourselves the L.A. Rebellion. We were named that post-graduation, which was interesting. But, yeah, my understanding is that it began in the late 1960s, early ’70s and went on into the ’80s. I graduated in ’85. And another thing that people don’t understand about the L.A. Rebellion – they think that it was all black. It was not, at least as far as I was concerned. Elliot Davis was a part of it. He just recently shot Birth of a Nation, with Nate Parker. There were so many other people: Monona Wali was Indian-American, Amy Halpern was Jewish.
You’re originally from New York. I’ve read that it was at the Studio Museum of Harlem that you first discovered cinema.
That’s where I fell in love with foreign film, specifically, sitting in the Museum, which was in a different location at the time. Sitting in the middle of Harlem, watching Eisenstein’s Potemkin, or Jules and Jim. I was a teenager. Everyone’s always so surprised. Who would have thought it? But that’s when it began — my love of films that went beyond anything in my known world. I think that’s the age when you can imagine. You’re taken on a journey, and when the lights come on, you look around and it’s like, “Oh, I’m back home.” It’s a Wizard of Oz–type of feeling.
There’s very little discussion about the TV films you made after Daughters of the Dust. But they’re all interesting, and a couple are great. I adore Love Song. It’s not a startlingly original story, but we really get to know them and like those characters.
That was my foray into pop. It was just a great cast, written by Josslyn Luckett, who left the industry and went back to Harvard to study theology. I saw her at the Black Star Film Festival. I so wish she would come back.
The characters in that film are fun and cool and they have their own voices. I also loved the idea of casting a darker-skinned mother and a light-skinned father. That was the situation in my family, where my mother was dark-skinned and my father was very light-skinned. It’s the “brown paper bag” issue. Back then, if you were a woman and you were darker than a brown paper bag, in middle-class black life…things were different, let’s put it that way. I kind of eased that into the dialogue. It’s fun being able to do that, because we need to hear more about that. We can’t have that history lost.
In a film like Incognito, which is a very standard-issue erotic thriller, the opening image is a woman in white running on a beach. I remember seeing that, and thinking, “Wait, we’re right back where we left off with Daughters of the Dust!”
I know! I wanted more of that! And they kept cutting it down, and then they laid the titles over. Oh, I had so much on the beach. It was fabulous! I love it, with the wedding dress.
And the film also has these real cinematic reveries. The character is having these flashbacks and dream visions. You really kind of went to town with those.
Let’s just say Incognito is a film you need to have a beer before you watch. [Laughs] It was shot in sixteen days, like bam bam bam. It’s based upon a romantic novel — part of the whole Arabesque series of romance novels. We had fun playing with the genre, playing with hyper-reality. The scene with the guys painted in silver. Those weren’t written into the script, but I was like, “Why not?”
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Funny Valentines, your film about a woman going back to her hometown to reconnect with her mentally challenged cousin. But I remember being very moved by it.
Oh yes. I got a call from Alfre Woodard. She wanted me to direct a movie that she was going to do in several months. They had a production, but the script was not there. It was based upon a short story by J. California Cooper. The film that we made had very little to do with that short story. We just had the characters. We got Amy Schor Ferris to do a rewrite, and she did a terrific job of making it meaningful. And that’s always what I want to do. Whenever I do a film, it has to take us one step further to making the world safe for everyone, let’s say. It can’t just be a movie about race, and someone being disabled. Why are they “slow”? Is it autism, is it Asperger’s? Is it because you were born a breach baby? OK, then let’s make it about that. I always want to find the back story, you know — what happened before the story began.
I had also been reading a lot of books about canned fruits and vegetables, just by happenstance. And I said: “You know, let’s have this rape victim do something more than just hate her life. Let’s have something more sustainable than just anger. So let’s have her preserve fruits and vegetables from each year’s crops.” That became part of the story. For the costuming and for the props, that worked out. It just kept falling into place, once you came up with an overall visual metaphor and a theme.
Elements like that also create a cinematic space where we can appreciate the actual work that these people do — which is something you don’t see in movies very often.
Well, it’s always a struggle, too, with producers who just want to hammer that out — “Just the story, just the story.” But a movie has to be more than a story. It has to be multilayered. We had to go through a whole lot of machinations to get the fruit in. Oh, and to get the usher board in! A lot of people didn’t get it. It’s a very black thing, you know — church ushers. If you don’t know that, then you’d think that it’s not very important, the thing about the competing ushers in church. That was big in my childhood. Every year they would have some kind of celebration where they would all march in uniform, and they’d get an award or something — the fittest and the finest ushers, the largest.
To me that was normal, but to get it into the film was difficult, because some people could not understand where I was going with it. But I still get letters. Even on this tour with Daughters, people are saying, “Well, where can we get a home version of Funny Valentines? That’s my favorite film, my grandmother’s favorite film…” And I think it’s because of these elements that are so familiar to black culture. Everyone knows the ushers run the church. When you see a black church in a movie, it’s always about the power of the preachers. Yeah, well, look to the left and the right and the ushers standing there, like military generals. They’re the ones running things.
The Rosa Parks Story was a bigger TV movie and nominated for awards. But you haven’t made more theatrical films since then.
Yeah. I think because of The Rosa Parks Story, maybe I was labeled as difficult because I wouldn’t do certain things. Like one of the things I would not do was have Rosa Parks say, “Well, I didn’t get up because my feet hurt.” That became a big issue. I said it was not true that she said that — it’s a myth. Some of the producers wanted me to have her say that. Right at the end, they wanted me to ADR a line, but I absolutely refused to add that line, because it’s not true.
There were so many no-no’s that I did on The Rosa Parks Story. Those scenes of her hanging the sign saying, “A man was lynched today.” Well, that was something the NAACP was doing in the Fifties during a period of violence. Every day they’d hang a sign up when there was a lynching, kind of like with Black Lives Matter now. That was not approved by the producers, so we snuck it in. I was lucky to have Angela Bassett and Cicely Tyson on my side, sneaking things in with me.
Or when she leaves the bus and crosses the street at the theater, and there’s A Man Alone, a Ray Milland movie, playing. I studied the period. I knew there was a theater across the street when she was taken off the bus. And it was important to me to find out what was playing at that theater. I had the art department put that up. The theater was still there. And when I found out that it was days before Christmas, I said, “We have to put Santa Claus there.” Little things like these tiny specifics will give a story resonance. But it became such a big deal because people thought I was messing with the myths of American history. And then I also added the bus driver going across the street to call his supervisor. Because that’s what he always said he did. And his supervisor told him, “It’s your job to call the police, and to get her off the bus.” So I added that, too, rather than just the same old image of “Get off the bus, get off the bus, you can’t stay.” All of those things add tension, drama to the moment.
The scene with the bus driver is fascinating because it also places the historical event in the context of a system. It’s not just like one racist driver and brave Rosa Parks. There are all these other things happening around them, driving them towards their actions.
Yeah. And the fact that the colored section of the bus was fluid. If there were more colored people sitting than white people, you moved that sign back and gave the whites more space. I learned so much from making that movie. Like the fact that they literally had to get on the back of the bus — that you pay up front, and then get off, and then go around the back. But in almost every American film you see, they walk through the bus to the back. When I found out that you had to get on, get back out… Little details like that were important. And I remember getting a fax from the network, saying, “It’s too much!”
What were some other projects along the way that came close to happening?
There was Secret Agent Mom…
I love it already.
Right? We were down in Albuquerque on location, on set, when the plug was pulled. And then there was another one, Tupelo 77, where the producers agreed to disagree among themselves, and after working on that for more than a year, it went away. There were many projects that just didn’t happen. But that happens to everyone.
Watching films like Funny Valentines, Incognito, Love Song, and Rosa Parks reminds me of those older Hollywood directors who were forced to make B movies but found ways to sneak their voices and their style into the genre film. Martin Scorsese calls them “smugglers.”
That’s the second time I heard that, and I love it. It’s funny. I started teaching and I started making movies for museums, and I worked for Disney Imagineering, designing the African-American Pavilion for Manassas, which was never built. But I also taught at the Indianapolis Museum of Art a seven-month program… called “Smuggling Daydreams into Reality”! They were high school students. One was deaf, and he communicated through his sign language interpreter who was also in the class. Another had Asperger’s. All of the students, there was something going on in their lives. That’s why I wanted them in the class. I wanted people who were struggling to find themselves, who they were and how they fit into the world, to be a part of this class museum experiment. And they created short films, and the short films were placed inside the gallery for several months. It was amazing what these children had inside of them. That’s why we called it “Smuggling Daydreams into Reality.”
You could describe all your films that way: Smuggling daydreams into reality.
Yes. Because you have to infuse what’s already out there, what’s been “approved.” You smuggle elements, these tiny specifics of authenticity, into it. But you can’t really tell anyone, because they will say, “No, you can’t do that.”
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