Film-maker Julie Dash: ‘#OscarsSoWhite worked!’

The pioneering African American film-maker on being an inspiration for Beyoncé, her new film and living in Trump’s America

In 1991, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust made history as the first film by an African American woman to receive a wide theatrical release in the United States. A hypnotic, otherworldly drama, it tells the forgotten history of three generations of Gullah – or Geechee – women, descendants of West African slaves brought to South Carolina’s isolated St Helena Island. Critically acclaimed upon its release, last year the film reached a new generation when it was the inspiration behind Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. The film has been restored for its 25th anniversary and is being rereleased this month. Born in New York, Dash studied at UCLA film school in Los Angeles, where she became a key member of the LA Rebellion collective of black film-makers.

You made Daughters of the Dust 26 years ago. How does it feel to be talking about it again?
The conversation has been ongoing. Ever since we made it, we’ve been talking about it and showing it in various places around the world. I’ve found overseas they don’t react like Americans, who want everything to be told with a western sensibility. And certainly Daughters of the Dust does not do that!

Beyoncé explicitly makes reference to the film in Lemonade. Did she have anything to do with the rerelease?
We were already working on the restoration, but when Beyoncé’s Lemonade came out, it just took the whole notion of it and propelled it out to a wider, younger audience. There’s a new kind of curiosity that was not out there before. With such a renewed interest in the film, we decided to do another theatrical run.

Did you meet Beyoncé?
I have never met Beyoncé! But I was able to meet her sister, Solange, who sent for us – for myself and AJ [Arthur Jafa, cinematographer of Daughters of the Dust] and we did a kind of town hall meeting in New Orleans for her Saint Heron gathering [an event hosted by Solange’s record label as part of the New Orleans film festival]. It was wonderful!

The film was critically acclaimed and you haven’t stopped directing since – you’ve made TV movies and documentaries such as The Rosa Parks Story – but you haven’t made another feature. Why has it been so hard to get one off the ground?
Well, easy question – how many times have you raised a million dollars? How many times do you have to do it? When we do that first film it’s all on us, it’s all or nothing, even though Daughters only cost $855,000, but that’s the same as a million to me.

Ava DuVernay, the Oscar-nominated director of 13th and Selma, has called you “the queen of it all” and suggested your work was ahead of its time. Do you agree?
It’s always the money. I understand what she’s saying but it’s not that I was before my time. It was that [female directors] didn’t have angels, we didn’t have anyone quarterbacking for us, we didn’t have anyone shepherding us for the second one.

How does that feel now that you’re in a different position? Are you in a different position?
I’m in a liminal state. It’s interesting because I was so pleased and honoured to have won a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle this past February, but I’m still knocking on doors.

The film-maker Barry Jenkins namechecked both you and Solange in a public letter he wrote about Moonlight’s influences. What did you make of his film?
Well, I’ve seen it several times and each time I’m always on the edge of my seat. There’s so much tenderness in it. That kind of black male tenderness is just not available in most places; you can’t see it. It’s gut-wrenching, but good gut-wrenching.

Watch a trailer for Daughters of the Dust.

In Daughters of the Dust, you’re credited as producer, director and screenwriter. Do you think of yourself as a director or a writer first?
A director first. I started writing because I needed something to direct. [Laughs] You’re the first person to ask me that and that’s the honest-to-God truth. Way, way, way back then, in the beginning I wanted to be a cinematographer. But I was awful at it. I think I have the eye of a cinematographer, but my lighting sucks!

How would you describe a Julie Dash film?
I usually try to focus on the culture of women, trying to see what women are doing and how they’re doing it and what makes it different and what makes it visceral.

You once described Daughters of the Dust as a kind of sci-fi. Would you ever want to make a straight sci-fi film?
Absolutely! I wrote [a sci-fi script] way, way, way back, in the 90s. Originally it was called Digital Diva but that got old really quick [laughs]. You can’t keep up with the future when you’re writing sci-fi, so I went to the past.

Last year, you were finally made a member of the Academy. How did that feel?
Wonderful. I was very pleased because I applied 26 years ago and I couldn’t get in, so #OscarsSoWhite worked, didn’t it! And not just for myself, but for about 750 other people. It’s never too late. I’m still very grateful and I’m still working.

Can you talk about your forthcoming film, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl?
It’s a documentary based upon the life of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, who was a culinary anthropologist and Geechee girl. She was a famous cook, chef, novelist and NPR journalist for many, many years. I met her and asked her would she be in Daughters of the Dust, would she vet it for me for the Gullah-Geechee accent, and we just became best friends. She passed away last September, but you don’t stop making the film. You soldier on, because it’s her legacy.

Food is also really important in Daughters of the Dust...
I come from a Gullah-Geechee family and cooking was a big deal. I mean, everyone cooked – the men, women and children – and the thing was you had to prepare it the correct way. If you didn’t know how to make rice, if your rice was too watery or too sticky, you were shamed!

Watch a video about the making of Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.

How does it feel to be an artist living in Donald Trump’s America?
Oh my gosh. Well, I’ll tell you one thing – we worked for, like, a year and a half preparing the proposal for this big NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grant that we were trying to get and, as of this year, he’s actively trying to dismantle that whole grant. That’s how we were going to finance Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, so in that regard I’m not a happy camper.

What are you working on next?
I don’t know if I should tell you…Well… I’m gonna be working on Queen Sugar next week. I was supposed to work on it last year but we had scheduling problems, so [the TV show’s creator, Ava DuVernay] said, “Next year, I’ll give you two of ‘em.” I love the show so it’s like [sighs excitedly].

Daughters of the Dust is in cinemas now and is released on DVD on 26 June


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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