“What’s past is prologue.”
A year ago, on May 25, 2020, Darnella Frazier, a 17-year old, took a video with her cellphone and changed the world. The Minneapolis police had given an ambiguous account of George Floyd’s death, and if it hadn’t been for Frazier’s movie, which went viral, we wouldn’t have ever known what really happened. Her recording was the catalyst for global outrage, and the largest protest marches in our lifetime. It transformed our lives as we know it. It has built a movement and created an awareness that has forced us, the United States, to come to terms with the structural racism at work in our country. She recently wrote on her Instragram account, “Even though this was a traumatic life-changing experience for me, I’m proud of myself. If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that. My video didn’t save George Floyd, but it put his murderer away and off the streets.”
I had to do some reckoning for myself. I had grown up consuming the products created by an entertainment industry biased in favor of white audiences and white filmmakers. A year ago, I made a conscious point to look at the films I had been brought up with, the ones I had been taught, and started to realize that they hadn’t been all encompassing. In order to better understand the world of movies, which in a way dictated the way I see the world in general, I needed to be more inclusive with my choices. And thus, my quiet education started, watching methodically films by artists of color, to make myself witness and imbibe. I had seen a lot of them, but I started to see them with new eyes. My ultimate feeling was one of sadness for what I had been missing.
Since the beginning of the film studios (early 1900s), their goods were geared towards white audiences, and authored by white filmmakers. I was happy to find out that there were Black artists trying to buck the trend. Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, an African-American film director and independent producer of more than 44 films, founded in 1919 the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was the first movie company owned and controlled by Black filmmakers. He produced both silent and sound films, and is considered to be the first major African-American feature filmmaker. In the 70s helmers like Melvin van Peebles and Gordon Parks started to build a movement creating a subgenre known as “blaxploitation.” The genre ranks among the first in which black characters and communities are the heroes and subjects rather than sidekicks, villains, or victims of brutality. Not coincidentally, its inception came at a time when America was rethinking race relations. In the 1980s and 90s, Spike Lee and John Singleton, with verve, urgency and signature styles, made films that made us reassess the racial divide. And in 1991, Julie Dash and her film “Daughters of the Dust” became the first film directed by a Black woman to get a wide release.
We live in a pivotal point in film history, a renaissance, where extraordinary talent are creating new ways of seeing things. Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler have become household names and essential filmmakers. Look at the array of movies we got in 2020 and its potency, “The Photograph,” “Sylvie’s Love,” “One Night in Miami,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Da 5 Bloods.” I cannot wait to see what the future holds. It’s up to us to demand it and embrace it.
I had wanted this past year to recommend Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” but it wasn’t easily available to stream. Now it is. If you’ve never seen it, make a point to do so. It’s a landmark work in American cinema. It is done in a dreamlike, experimental way, beautiful and lyrical. The narrative is circular and non-linear where the past and present live side by side. “I…wanted to do a film that was so deeply embedded in the culture, was so authentic to the culture that it felt like a foreign film,” Dash said in an interview when the film came out.
It is set in 1902, on Saint Helena Island, renowned for its rural Lowcountry character and being a major center of African-American Gullah culture and language. The Gullah people are the descendants of the slaves who worked on the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. They still live in rural communities in the coastal region and on the Sea islands of those two states, and they still retain many elements of African language and culture.
With extraordinary visuals, we learn about three generations of the Peazant family as told to us by the narrator, an unborn child who represents the future. The two granddaughters of Nana, the matriarch who practices rituals that connect with the past and the future, have come back on the day in which the community is set to leave and migrate to the North. With powerful iconography, Dash shows us the three resilient generations grappling with the scars of slavery. The cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who is having a powerful triumph as an artist right now, did the stunning camera work. Beyonce’s celebrated 2016 video album “Lemonade” was influenced by this film. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Dash is a true American original.
Nana: “I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, TCM, Criterion and Kanopy. Available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, Microsoft, iTunes and Vudu.
Written and Directed by Julie Dash
Starring Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore
Writer and Director Julie Dash on Bringing “Daughters of the Dust” to the Screen
“…from script to filming, it took 15 years…“I think I came a bit early,” Dash said. “I don’t think it’s personal. I think it just had to do with general systemic racism and gender issues.” Finally obtaining funding, from PBS’ American Playhouse, her silent-film idea became a movie with dialogue and titled “Daughters of the Dust.” When released in 1991, it was the first movie by a black woman to get a general distribution deal in the United States, from Kino International. In honor of the 25th anniversary of this historic moment, “Daughters of the Dust” is being re-released Nov. 25. (It will play at Beverly Hills’ Laemmle Ahrya and Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhouse 7.) “I never expected [the] Cohen [Film Collection] to come in and be eager to do a restoration of the film and place it in the digital space,” Dash said. “That was not on my immediate agenda, but I’m so glad that it happened. It saves the film.” …The film screened earlier this month as part of AFI’s “Cinema’s Legacy” slate of programming. Prior to the event, Dash, now a film professor at Morehouse College and Howard University, spoke with The Times about “Daughters of the Dust,” diversity and representation in the industry and Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
…I wanted to do something authentic, so authentic [to the Gullah community] it would feel like a foreign film. I felt that we deserved that too. The more and more I learned about the Gullah Geechee culture, the more fascinated I became [because] we learned to camouflage what we love and eat, our desires, how we communicate nonverbally, in order to survive. I originally wrote it as a silent film, because why not? I wanted the visuals to tell the story, to use the grammar of film to plot the story.” (latimes.com)
Julie Dash on the Team Behind “Daughters of the Dust”
“It was collaborative. And back then, Arthur Jafa talked about it as a jazz band, like a jazz orchestra out there. Working with [production designer] Kerry James Marshall and [art director] Michael Kelly Williams and the costume designers—it just started flowing. It was a huge production for an independent film. We had these big warehouses where we had the costumes stored, where they were being dyed. The art department had their warehouse where Michael Kelly Williams was making the chair and he and Kerry were making the tombstones and the figureheads. It was a museum, if you will, walking through the art department.
And it started even before we got down there. With Kerry, we were pulling images as references for the indigo plantation flashback scene, and Kerry actually built those indigo dyeing mounds, all based upon what we could find or pull together or read about about how they did it in West Africa as the foundation for what was done here. I believe we were the very first ever to have indigo as a visual theme or motif that went throughout the story. I decided, instead of showing the form of enslaved people with whip marks or scars of slavery, their scars would be the permanent blue hands from working the indigo fields, and that’s how you could tell who was a former enslaved person of the elders.” (filmcomment.com)
About Production Designer Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall (b.1955 in Birmingham, AL; lives and works in Chicago, IL) is recognized as one of the leading contemporary artists of his time. Internationally renowned for his revolutionary portraits of Black subjects, Marshall’s work interrogates Western art history—from the Renaissance to 20th-century American Abstraction—challenging and recontextualizing the canon to include themes and depictions that have been historically omitted. Born in Birmingham at the start of the American civil rights movement, and later moving to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles just a few years before the Watts riots, Marshall’s work is inspired by his own personal history as well as what he interprets to be recurring elements of the American experience, both past and present.
Marrying formal rigor and social engagement, Marshall’s practice foregrounds painting but encompasses a range of media, from comics to sculpture, striving towards a literal and conceptual Black aesthetic. Often, his work showcases the daily lives of Black Americans, either as standalone portraits or positioned within larger landscapes, domestic interiors or significant historical events, though tone and subject matter vary widely. For instance, in 1993, he created two of his most iconic works: De Style, a seemingly ordinary scene of a barbershop monumentalized and distinguished in the grand tradition, and his infinitely more solemn, Lost Boys, a tragically timeless memorial to the violent deaths of Black children. More recently, his work has captured subjects as far ranging as the joy of Black love, to historical activists, to a mining of traditions of abstraction via the Black Liberation Flag. In 2018, as part of the 57th Carnegie International, Marshall revisited his 1999 comic book series, “Rythm Mastr,” in which he depicted exclusively Black superheroes in response to the lack of independent Black characters represented in the Marvel comics he read as a child. Through his work, Marshall has helped correct what he has called the “lack in the image bank” of Black subjects, and has reshaped the artistic canon. (jackshainman.com) Marshall was the production designer for “Sankofa” (1993) and “Daughters of the Dust” in 1991.
About Art Director Michael Kelly Williams
Michael Kelly Williams graduated with a B.F.A. in Printmaking from the University of Michigan in 1975. Williams was Artist-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem from 1986 to 1987. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1988. He was the art director for “Daughters of the Dust,” a 1991 PBS-American Playhouse Production directed by Julie Dash. He graduated in 1996 with an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Brooklyn College. Williams has also been an educator with the Children’s Art Carnival, Studio in a School, and the New York City Department of Education system for many years. His work can be found in several museums and institutions, such as The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York; The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York. He has been commissioned for various permanent installations, including two mosaic murals located at the Intervale Subway Station (2/5) in the Bronx as well as several glass murals in P.S. 82 Hammond School in Queens, New York. Most recently he has had residencies at Materials for the Arts and Wave Hill and was awarded the first Robert Blackburn Legacy Publishing Fellowship. He is also a recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. (michaelkellywilliams.com)
About Cinematographer Arthur Jafa
Arthur Jafa is a cinematographer, director and visual artist. Jafa was born in 1960 in Toldeo, Mississippi and raised in Clarksdale, MS. He graduated in 1983 from Howard University in Washington, D.C, where he trained as an architect. After graduation, Jafa experimented with film making, directing the film “Considerations” (1983) and “Slowly This” (1995). It was Jafa’s work as a cinematographer that gained him global recognition. His role as director of photography for the 1991 film, “Daughters of the Dust,” directed by Julie Dash, earned him ‘Best Cinematography’ at the Sundance Film Festival. He went on to work as a cinematographer for many influential films including “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” (1993), “Crooklyn” (1994) and “I Am Ali” (2002), collaborating with directors such as Spike Jonze, Andrew Dosunmu and Haile Gerima. He later began to direct more of his own films including “Sharifa Walks” (2015), “APEX” (2013), “Black Millennium” (2000) and “Corner” (2000), along with co-directing “Deshotten 1.0” (2009) and “Adrian Younge” (2015) with Malik Sayeed. Jafa co-founded TNEG with Sayeed, a motion picture studio ‘whose goal is to create a black cinema as culturally, socially, and economically central to the 21st century as was black music to the 20th century.’ Jafa’s 2013 film “Dreams are Colder Than Death” won him the ‘Best Documentary Award’ at the Black Star Film Festival in 2015. Arguably, Jafa’s breakthrough on the art scene came with “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” (2016), which premiered a few days after the US presidential election. The work is a seven-minute video set to Kanye West’s gospel-inspired song “Ultralight Beam.”
Additionally, Jafa has worked on a number of music videos and was notably the director of photography on videos for Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky,” as well as Jay-Z’s song “4:44” with TNEG. In 2018, Jafa released the approximately forty minute-long video essay entitled “The White Album,” which uses found video clips from CCTV, cell phones, documentaries, and more to explore whiteness and racism in the United States of America. This was awarded The Golden Lion for best artist at the 2019 Venice Biennale. He has had solo exhibitions at the likes of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles (2017), the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (2018) and the Serpentine Galleries in London (2017). (showstudio.com)
About Writer and Director Julie Dash
Twenty-nine years ago, filmmaker Julie Dash broke through racial and gender boundaries with her Sundance award-winning film (Best Cinematography) “Daughters of the Dust,” and she became the first African American woman to have a wide theatrical release of her feature film. In 2004, The Library of Congress placed “Daughters of the Dust” in the National Film Registry where it joins a select group of American films preserved and protected as national treasures by the Library of Congress. Julie Dash is the recent recipient of the Special Award at the 82nd New York Film Critics Circle, the 2017 Women & Hollywood Trailblazer Award, the 2017 New York Women in Film & Television MUSE Award, The Ebert Award, and she was inducted into the Penn Cultural Center’s 1862 Circle on St. Helena Island. Dash directed multiple episodes of the award-winning dramatic series, “Queen Sugar,” Season 2, created and produced by Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, for OWN Television; and she hosted “The Golden Years,” a limited series for Turner Classic Movies. Dash was a Filmmaker’s Lab Governor at the Toronto International Film Festival; and screened at the Smithsonian’s First African American Film Festival. She has written and directed for CBS, BET, ENCORE STARZ, SHOWTIME, MTV Movies, HBO, and OWN Television. She directed the NAACP Image Award winning, Emmy and DGA nominated, “The Rosa Parks Story,” “Incognito,” “Funny Valentines,” “Love Song,” and “Subway Stories: Tales From The Underground.”
Her work as a film director includes museum and theme park exhibits and design for Disney’s Imagineering, Brothers of the Borderland for The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Museum, and Smuggling Daydreams into Reality for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Her most recent museum installations include Standing at The Scratch Line, at the Philadelphia Museum of African American History, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Shine a Light, a large-scale video mapping projection for the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit. Dash has been attached to direct the upcoming Lionsgate Entertainment bio pic on the scholar and activist Angela Davis. She has several documentary projects in the works, including “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” a feature length documentary in-progress about Vertamae Smart Grosvenor, a world-renowned author, performer, and chef from rural South Carolina who has led a remarkably unique and complex life. She earned her MFA in Film & Television production at UCLA; received her BA in Film Production from CCNY, and she was a Producing and Writing Conservatory Fellow at AFI, the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies. Julie Dash is currently the Distinguished Professor of Art & Visual Culture at Spelman College. (juliedash.tv)