Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, released in April, includes imagery of African-American women in flowing white dresses that recalls a landmark film made 25 years ago—Daughters of the Dust (1991), written and directed by Julie Dash, is a vivid tone poem focused on a family of Gullah women living on the Sea Islands in South Carolina in the year 1902 and contemplating a move to the American mainland. For those who’ve seen Daughters of the Dust and Lemonade, the parallels are noticeable.
“My phone blew up the night Lemonade came on and my Web site shut down,” Dash told Vanity Fair in August. “Someone called me and said Daughters of the Dust is trending on Twitter. And I said, ‘No, it must be something else,’ and they said, ‘No, it’s trending!'”
Following screenings at a handful of events earlier this year, including the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, the 25th-anniversary restoration of Daughters of the Dust—completed by Cohen Media Group prior to Lemonade‘s debut—rolls out in theaters nationwide this month. The richly color-graded and remastered film will play its first Chicago run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, today, November 25, through December 1.
In a phone interview, Dash and I discussed the film’s initial impact and legacy. We also talked about how Dash’s Gullah ancestry influenced the work, and why she believes “women are the carriers of traditions and beliefs.”
Leah Pickett: With this theatrical rerelease, many moviegoers—many of them young people—will be seeing Daughters of the Dust for the first time. How do you think the lens through which they’ll be viewing the film is different from the lens of those who viewed it 1991?
Julie Dash: One of the things that has changed is that this generation has grown up on music videos. Because of music videos, and extended music videos, they’re more receptive to nonlinear storytelling. And I think that back in the early 90s there were so few films about African-Americans or African-American culture that this was maybe shocking, maybe too outside of the box for some. But nowadays, hey, I’m looking forward to seeing how a younger generation reacts to it. I’m really excited about it.
I’m sure the reaction will be positive, especially since Beyoncé’s Lemonade seems to draw inspiration from your film.
Absolutely. And that’s a perfect example of the kind of nonlinear storytelling that people understand.
Daughters is the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically—that’s huge. How did you see the filmmaking environment and opportunities for African-American women, particularly behind the camera, change after that?
Well, it was slow going for a while, for a long while. But now, everyone’s talking about Ava DuVernay’s remarkable contribution to the whole landscape with her series Queen Sugar, which is directed by all women: black, white, Asian. It’s a remarkable achievement and a huge step forward. Yeah, things are moving. Hopefully they’ll move at a faster clip than they did previously.
I’ve read that filming Daughters was quite difficult. On top of budget constraints, the island locations were hot and insect-ridden. There were sandstorms and hurricane delays. What did you learn from that experience about your own resilience as a filmmaker?
We knew it was going to be rough; I certainly knew, because I’d been down there so many times before. I was used to working with a limited budget and that was the largest budget I’d had to date. We were just so happy to be there and able to express ourselves in new, imaginative ways. Working with Arthur Jafa, the cinematographer, and Kerry James Marshall, the production designer, and Michael Kelly Williams, the art director—they’re well-known artists in their own right. Kerry James Marshall, wow—he is one of the masters of fine art today, but we knew it back then, too. To be able to collaborate with this kind of artistic group within a creative environment along the coast . . . we didn’t even think about the bugbites until we got back home, sort of. Because being there at sunrise, at sunset, it was just a remarkable spiritual journey that we were all on.
In an interview you did with bell hooks, she mentioned that “a lot of people were deeply moved by Daughters precisely because it addressed the agrarian experience of black folk.” What inspired you to depict this experience in particular, which was also your family’s experience on your father’s side; and what about this time period, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, interested you?
I thought it was the perfect date—because, as you mentioned, it was the time of the Industrial Revolution, and these characters represented the first generation of freeborn African-Americans. The Gullahs were freeborn; some of the elders, the ones with the blue [indigo-stained] hands, were enslaved at some point. So I thought it was a great, corporeal type of period piece. It offered the opportunity to claim so many different ideas about historical events and issues, and cultural events and issues, that were afford by the locale—because this was a group of people who were not known, then and now, because of the isolation and insulation of living on these islands. That was really interesting to me.
I was fascinated by it, once I realized who these people were, that I was related to. Before I went to graduate school, it was just like, “Well, this is different from me, this is really weird.” But afterward, it was like, “Oh my god, this is really fascinating.” I knew about it growing up in New York, but it wasn’t something that I was interested in talking about, let’s say. But I knew we were different.
The film touches on so many compelling cultural issues, as you said. One of my favorite lines in the film is what Nana says to Eli: “Eula never belong to you; she marry you.”
And that connects to issues that people are still talking about—that just because she’s your wife doesn’t mean you can treat her like she’s property. It’s a marriage; you’re partners. It’s not ownership.
Right. And the preceding line, “You can’t get back what you never own,” works on many levels. It works on the level of these being free people who are no longer owned by anyone, and also on the level of feminism—this being a strong feminist statement before feminism was fashionable, as it were.
Exactly. And that’s why I see the Yellow Mary character as being heroic, because she’s a woman of independent means. Instead of working in an agrarian society, she chooses to be a sex worker, a prostitute, which gives her mobility. She travels with her girlfriend and they have money and they’re independent. And yet you see her hated by people within her own family, because she’s a woman of independent means and she’s uncontrollable. She’s like her own CEO of her own company: her body. She’s in control of her body; she sells it.
Matriarchy also is a central theme of the film. Was the innate power of women, especially in the family structure and religious traditions of the Gullah people, something you wanted to convey?
Yeah. My whole theory is that women are the carriers of traditions and beliefs—not just because they give birth to children, and carry children, but also because women tend to carry what I call scraps of memories. That’s why I had all of the characters having their own little tin cans or boxes of specialty items—those scraps of memories that you carry throughout your life. And in doing so, you’re actually carrying cultural traditions into a new generation.
I was not the person who coined the phrase “scraps of memories”—that comes from the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, when he was writing about African-Americans post-Reconstruction, when there were no photographs or records they had of their own. They only had little bits of hair and ribbon, the flotsam and jetsam of their lives that amounted to scraps of memories.
That’s one of many powerful choices you make in the film, the depiction of that memory keeping. Another is the use of an unborn child as a narrator. Why did you make that choice?
Well, it began with a single narration—that’s the way most western films are narrated—and that was by Nana Peazant, the family’s matriarch. But then I decided that this needed to be narrated by two different points of view that are converging: from the oldest person still alive in the family, Nana, to the youngest person, the unborn child.
I wanted her to have input into the story, to have sway. Even the unborn child had agency. She came forward to help out between her parents and to help guide them into the future, [to show] that everything was going to be okay.
I started by asking you if you thought a younger generation might view this film differently. Do you view this film differently now than when you made it 25 years ago?
No, not really. I do see things I may have done differently, because I’ve made a number of films since I made this film. But in many ways, it’s just like visiting an old friend. I don’t feel ownership, really, of it—of the story or of the historical events and issues presented in the story. It’s just kinda like, “Oh, I remember that! Yeah.”
I don’t really feel like it’s mine and I created it. It’s just like meeting an old friend, sitting down and having tea, and chatting about back then.