Julie Dash has been making films and television for four decades, and is part of the LA Rebellion generation of filmmakers. Her feature Daughters of the Dust (1991) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States. Dash is the film’s producer, screenwriter and director. In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Dash has also made numerous music videos, commercials, and television movies, the latter including Funny Valentines, Incognito, Love Song, and The Rosa Parks Story. Her Brothers of the Borderland was commissioned by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She is also a screenwriter and novelist, and is currently working on a feature-length documentary about Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Daughters of the Dust is currently touring the world in a restored 35mm print. It screens at the London Film Festival 2016, on Saturday 15th October.
Your daughter Nzinga grew up with the making of Daughters of the Dust… How was that?
We started making the film prior to her arrival, and I’d already been making films for a decade. I never brought her on set when we were shooting, but I took her to the edit suite all the time. It was definitely much easier to work when she was small, because she was in a child seat that I could put under the edit table, and she’d sleep. When she was older, she was more impatient, asking “Are you done yet?”
But children are useful to filmmakers, too. They’re a great source for dialogue. They say things like, “Why are we here on earth?” and you say back, “Well, because here is where we are.” I remember when my daughter was little, I told her that when I was her age, I’d had a bird, and that it had died. She asked why, and I said I didn’t know. She looked at me and said, “I know… [emphatically] Drugs.” And I thought, “What?” But I realised later that it was because they begin telling them in kindergarten that drugs are bad, drugs kill you. But you don’t get dialogue like that without kids, and they don’t realise what they’re saying. It’s great.
Was it a particular challenge to be a two-filmmaker-parent household?
AJ [Arthur Jafa] and I worked together on several films, but then we divorced, and it was me and my daughter. I was shooting music videos and commercials, working a lot, and the one repercussion I remember is: she got thrown out of Brownies because I couldn’t go to the zoo. So she never made it to Girl Guides because her mom was too busy to go on all these trips!
On the other hand, there was some sense of a film family that she was part of. Once when I was editing on a later project, the assistant editor picked her up from school. She was really happy about it. He’s gay, and she said to me, “Oh mom, he’s so much more fun than you are.” And once she got her eyebrows arched on set: there was some downtime, and she was hanging with hair and makeup.
What did she think of your work?
She always knew what my job was, but no-one else’s mother was a filmmaker. I was always shocked when people said that Daughters was the first feature film by an African American woman to get distribution, because I was part of a group of black women filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s: I just happened to get distribution first. So one day, when the kids in my daughter’s class had to say what their parents did, she told them I was a supermarket cashier! Because it didn’t make sense to her to say I was a filmmaker. I’ll never forget that.
She said we were crazy to be filmmakers – and now she’s a post-production supervisor at Mattel, for Barbie commercials. She loves Barbie. I don’t know how it happened. I was always such a tomboy, and raised her the same. I put her in Osh Kosh dungarees and so on. But she was so super-femme! I learned hair and makeup from my crew – from the glam squad, that’s what I call them. And I’m wearing nail polish right now because she taught me how to.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I always wanted a train set as a kid, and my parents were worried. So what drew me to filmmaking was working with film cameras, the lights, editing, to conquer all the technology. Now I want a drone for my birthday! I told my daughter that already. It can be a bedazzled one, like this phone case she gave me, I don’t care.
We had a helicopter on Daughters of the Dust, but a drone would have made things so much cheaper! I think about all the shots we could have gotten. You’d have a whole different lighting situation. We were shooting in natural light with reflectors, because it was filmed in a conservation area and we weren’t allowed to use any four-wheeled vehicles: we had to carry in everything, lights, cameras, generators. That shoot felt like it would never end.
Daughters of the Dust remains quite unique in American cinema, as the story of a matrifocal, multigenerational, complex African American family. What was your aim with the film?
I wanted to tell a story so authentic to African-American culture it would feel like a foreign film. Nothing I saw on TV growing up felt like my life. So it was a challenge and a mission to find a way to bring that story to the screen. I wanted to tell a story about the first generation of African Americans born free, migrating north: what’s their future? And how is it connected to their past. This generation is moving into the effects of the Industrial Revolution, it’s the first years of the twentieth century, but they have older relatives that were slaves. The film is about the tipping of the scales, about youth wanting to go forward but asking how can you balance moving toward progress and change, but hold on to your culture.
Yellow Mary is an important character for that: she’s lived on the mainland, and she’s a woman of independent means, which at that time meant she had to be a prostitute. She is shunned by the family, but she holds power, she inspires fear and admiration, and the family comes to embrace her over the course of the film.
Do you feel like there’s a new generation of filmmakers, particularly women of colour, who are daughters of Daughters of the Dust? What advice do you have for them?
Now there are more women making films and they’re getting them out there. It’s wonderful. Just by being visible they are making it possible for other people to say, “I could do that – and I could do it better!” That’s important too, that vision. What’s needed is visibility, but then also recognition of good work being done, and the sharing and promotion of good work. We need to be celebrating and mentoring – I always have young filmmakers I’m mentoring, as well in as my teaching work.
Are any of them parents? Do you have any particular advice for them?
I do have some young filmmakers around now who are parents – it’s not easy, there are tough choices to be made. I’ve always been up front about that. I had a child while Daughters was in development, and then right before the shoot I found out I was pregnant. I knew from the first time that I would be sick, and that it just wasn’t going to work, so I had an abortion – and I wrote about it [in the book Daughters of the Dust: An African American Women’s Film]. There was blowback – subtle blowback – from some filmmakers, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do that, to make a film while pregnant.
Given that kind of criticism, and other barriers, how have you kept going?
If you’re going to be a filmmaker, you have to make films because you want to, because you have a voice and something to say. If you get criticism, read it and say “That’s your point of view.” You’re not making the film to please anyone other than yourself. There can always be growth from dealing with criticism, but you can’t let anyone shut you down or insist you only do one thing – after Daughters of the Dust, everyone just wanted me to remake that film. But I did Love Song [an MTV original movie starring Monica], I made car commercials, I made industrial films: most people don’t know that. And because of how filmographies are presented, people can’t see it.
I would love to have made another feature, but I also chose work because it was interesting, as well as because it paid. Movies for television are the same amount of work and storytelling as for cinema. The largest budget film that I ever made – $1.5 million – was a 25 minute film that’s part of an immersive exhibit for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, ‘Brothers of the Borderland.’ It’s a historical drama, we had to stage river crossings, and it has narration by Oprah Winfrey. But no-one knows [Ed: it is listed on imdb, but Dash’s name is not on the exhibit’s webpage].
I work to make myself happy: to challenge myself. You can’t be swayed – or dissuaded – by critics. I think some people thought I would just go away – but here I am, I’ve survived them all. I’m not going away. I’m too old to retrain as a nurse. And I love it, too! It’s so hard to be at this film festival as a guest, only for a short time: I want to be watching films! When I was a student, we would take a week off classes and go to film festivals, and go to films day and night.
You are working on a feature film right now, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, a documentary that you’ve crowdfunded. How is that going?
We’re still shooting on Travel Notes, but it’s a little strange because Vertamae [Smart-Grosvenor, the film’s subject and a longterm friend and colleague of Dash’s] passed away 2nd September. What I’ve actually been doing for the last while is organising her memorial, which happened two weeks ago. I’ll be showing some footage from the film for the first time. She was so well-known and that’s documented, yet she’s gone unheralded. But she cooked for everyone and made over 100 broadcasts about food and culture on NPR [which has a moving memorial essay by Jacki Lyden, with clips of Smart-Grosvenor’s commentaries]. Her story should be told.
We raised $32, 000 through the crowdfunder, which is very nice for a documentary. We shot 22 interviews, but now we’re fundraising for the edit. I contribute to Kickstarters and Indiegogos all the time, even if it’s only five bucks. I try to finance films where I don’t know the director, and I do it anonymously. That way I’m contributing to the future of film.