Family, Pride, Power: Behind the Groundbreaking Movie That Influenced 'Lemonade'
In 1992, Julie Dash became the first female African-American director to score a mainstream film release with 'Daughters of the Dust.' Thanks to Beyonce, her cinematic epic is getting a new lease of life.
On the day Julie Dash speaks to me about the 25th anniversary 2K restoration release of Daughters of the Dust, she is in the midst of preparing for a trip to New Orleans to shoot two episodes of Queen Sugar—the Louisiana-set drama created by Ava DuVernay and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Dash's enthusiasm brims over into conversation as she describes DuVernay: "She's a filmmaker and social activist. We've discussed progression over the years and we agree that you need to create a wave of filmmaking, not just one person. She certainly has done that with her TV series by hiring all these different women to direct episodes."
In fact, DuVernay exclusively hires women to direct. It's a far cry from 1992, the year Dash released Daughters of the Dust, a masterpiece that went on to heavily influence Beyonce's visual album, Lemonade. Twenty-five years ago, Dash simply didn't get that kind of support from the industry.
When the film took home the award for best cinematography at Sundance, Dash became the first African-American woman director to have a mainstream theatrical release in the US. The film ran for months in New York and sold out many of its screenings. It was an exciting time for Dash, who was determined to redefine the way black women were seen on screen.
Daughters of the Dust tells the story of a group of three generations of Gullah women who, at the turn of the 20th century, are contemplating the history of their ancestors and their migration north to the US mainland from Dawtah Island, off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
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Dash refrained from using typical European cinematic narrative and instead opted for a non-linear device to evoke the oral tradition of ancient African storytellers. It was a ground-breaking approach that resulted in a gorgeous and poetic portrait of Gullah Geechee life and culture.
"I researched it over a period of 15 years. I used to go down there as a child, though I was born and raised in New York, but I was down there a lot because my family lived there," she says.
She also gathered an impressive crew for her low budget indie, including her then husband Arthur Jafa as cinematographer and artists Kerry James Marshall and Michael Kelly Williams to work on art and production design.
The film was warmly received by many critics and audiences alike, but Hollywood rejected Dash's unique vision. "The studios for the most part ignored me. I think that's because for them Daughters of the Dust was not acceptable. At that time it was changing mostly for African-American males—there were more opportunities for them than there were for me."
There were also some critics who suggested that Dash's period-specific costumes weren't accurate. Cutting comments on the clothes and hairstyles these women wore highlighted preconceived notions of what films with an African-American cast should look like. "It's kind of a funny thing because people are wearing their hair in braids now, so some people think that's a contemporary hairstyle. But these are ancient hairstyles the women had. It's interesting to see how an audience will react or respond to certain things based upon what they know, what they've seen before in history or what they've seen depicted on the screen."
Dash also decided to include a romance between a Native American man and a black woman, an interracial relationship that is still rarely portrayed in film. "There's so many people with Native American heritage in their family line, but it's never been depicted on screen before because it takes us to tell stories about us. Other directors ignore that fact or eliminate it, but it's been very well documented."
After the dust had settled after the film's release, Dash struggled to find the creative freedom to tell her stories in Hollywood. But she never gave up trying—she's still pitching screenplays, like a film about a family of black magicians and one about African-American women who served overseas in World War II. In between this, Dash was looking for a company to release Daughters of the Dust on Blu-ray.
Once Lemonade premiered on HBO and people began noticing Dash's influence, her visibility increased among a new audience and the decision to release the film theatrically was made. "When Lemonade came out they said they would release it. The day that it aired I got a ton of phone calls and my website shut down because people were searching trying to find out who the heck I was! We started trending on Twitter with #daughtersofthedust and people wanted to find out what that meant."
Lemonade and Daughters of the Dust share many similarities—a non-linear narrative, flowing white costumes and dresses, and arresting images of women gathering together on sandy beaches, to name a few—but both embrace the pain and power of black women who have endured and continue to overcome.
The films use family recipes and traditions, handed down from one generation to the next, to express the continuation of culture. For Daughters of the Dust, Dash worked closely with the late Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a culinary anthropologist, to express the culture of the Geechee people through their cuisine. In Lemonade, Beyoncé refers to her grandmother Agnéz Deréon as an "alchemist" and reveals Deréon's recipe for lemonade.
The grandmother in Dash's film, Nana Peazant—her hands stained blue from indigo dye at her old slave plantation—shares African expressions with children who are leaving the island. She doesn't want them to forget their heritage, and places okra on their foreheads as she speaks to them. "[It's] something my father used to do with us when he was cooking," Dash says.
She's taken part in Q&A sessions after recent showings of the film in New York. Once again the response has been hugely positive. "The screenings are usually sold out and the people who come to see it tell me they've seen it a number of times. I think now young people read a film differently. They're not lost in the mindset of the traditional western narrative, especially with the plotting. They are open and available to the new, so it's not as much a shock as it was all those years ago for some people."
Daughters of the Dust will be released by the BFI on 2 June 2017 in selected cinemas UK-wide, and at BFI Southbank as part of Unbound: Visions of the Black Feminine, a month-long season of films created by and about black women. On 26 June it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI in a Dual Format Edition.