I recently interviewed Julie Dash for Time Out Chicago. The version that appeared on their site was edited for length so I’m including the uncut version below.
Julie Dash’s landmark 1991 indie film Daughters of the Dust, the first feature directed by an African-American woman to receive a theatrical release, has been the subject of renewed interest this year due to the fact that it’s a major reference point in Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade. Daughters has been newly restored for its 25th anniversary and will receive a one-week theatrical re-release at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning on Friday, November 25. I recently spoke to Dash about the film when she was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival.
MGS: Tell me about this beautiful new restoration of Daughters of the Dust. I read that you didn’t properly color time it when it was originally released.
JD: Correct. We didn’t have enough money to continue. Because back in the analog days, every answer print – you know, the whole: answer print, answer print, answer print to release print? – we got to the second answer print and that was $20,000. And it was like “Enough!” I mean, at this point, let’s get this show on the road! We can’t go any further. It was the cost. And so that answer print did not look like the work print we worked on. The work print looked better.
MGS: Were you personally involved in the new restoration?
JD: We brought back in A.J. (cinematographer Arthur Jafa) to sit with the people timing it and doing the scan. And – whoo! – we got it just in time. The original elements were starting to deteriorate. There was some shrinkage in some areas. They scanned it twice in 2K. We couldn’t afford 4K. Once again! (laughing) Here we go again!
MGS: It’s great that it’s getting re-released theatrically.
JD: That was not even on my agenda. That came as an utter and complete wonderful surprise. I just wanted it scanned and I just wanted a Blu-ray, you know? And we had it done. And then… Lemonade (Beyonce’s “visual album,” which owes a strong stylistic debt to Dash’s film). And it was like, “Wow. This is wonderful. This is great stuff.” And people were saying, “Well, what is Daughters of the Dust? What is this thing?” And I was like, “Yeah, we have it. We’re planning to release it on Blu-ray.” And then Tim (Lanza of Cohen Media) called and said he had a conversation with Charles Cohen. I hadn’t met him yet, Cohen. And they decided: “Let’s do a re-release.” I was like, “In the theaters?” (laughing) When they started looking at the analytics and when Daughters of the Dust started trending on Twitter, it was like “What is this? Wow.” I don’t really see the precedent for this because it’s not like it’s Lawrence of Arabia.
MGS: But it is a seminal film!
JD: Yeah, but there’s no precedent for it. The Shirley Clarke films? Yeah, okay. But, for me, it was just not on my radar to do that. And I was like, “Yeah. Sure!”
MGS: This re-release makes me happy because Daughters of the Dust is a film that was really ahead of its time.
JD: It came at a time when everyone, in terms of independent filmmakers and artists and experimental filmmakers, we were all looking for new ways of telling stories. I said, “I’m going to create this griot story structure – like the way an African griot would recall and recount a family’s history – and I’m going to write this.” And everything was all good and hunky-dory and great. And then (when it was originally released) people were like, “Well, this is like a foreign film.” And I think the wider general audience, they were more open to it than the established – how should I say it? – the curators of culture.
MGS: Including critics?
JD: Yeah. The curators of culture were saying, “This is a difficult film.” Difficult? It’s straightforward! They come and say goodbye, it’s a picnic, and then they go on. It’s the Great Migration, you know what I mean? The Industrial Revolution.
MGS: But it’s not plot-driven. It doesn’t go from point A to point B to point C.
JD: Yeah, it’s not binary. It’s not “This then that.” But don’t they teach you in film schools not to do “This then that?”
MGS: Yeah, especially if you want to be an independent filmmaker!
JD: Why?! We have the binary already. And it’s not something that, at the end of film, I say, “I was just kidding!” In anything that really has to do with another culture that’s not Western, it’s taken as something scary or something to be feared or something that’s being subversive. No, I’m just saying, “Look, hey, man, this is what’s out there.” (In islands off the coast of South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century) Muslims were still practicing their religion, there was West African religions being practiced, there was Christianity, there was Protestantism, all these things were happening. I didn’t create this! It’s there if you want to look at it.
MGS: And it’s still there today.
JD: Exactly. Let’s talk about it. These survivals, these retention patterns, let’s look at them. People look at retention patterns in Roanoke and it’s not scary. So look at all these islands where these people were pure African in many ways. It’s like, “Well, we don’t want to talk about that.”
MGS: The film was also ahead of its time in terms of the subject matter because you’re dealing with the aftermath of slavery, which was not a fashionable subject in cinema in 1991.
JD: I was dealing with the first generation of freeborn African Americans heading towards the Industrial Revolution. I thought that was a great idea. (Chuckles) Instead of showing the whip marks on someone’s back or something, I just made their hands blue. Everyone who was once a slave, their hands were blue from working in the indigo fields. And how is that subversive? I thought it was straightforward. People were saying “Why did you make it so difficult?”
MGS: It’s not difficult but it avoids formulas and stereotypes.
JD: That’s what we’re tasked to do, right? To find other ways of saying the same thing, to find visual metaphors of what we already know so it will have more of an impact and we’ll go “A-ha!” Because, after you watch a couple slave movies, someone’s getting whipped and you become anesthetized. But when you see someone’s hands are blue, you go, “Oh shit! That was some rough work.” And I just wanted people to see it wasn’t just about picking cotton and someone blowing a harmonica. And so the music was totally different too. I’m really proud of John Barnes’ score because he and I sat down together and talked about what’s the sound of New-World music. What came before jazz? He brought in an Iranian santur player, a Pakistani drummer, a Nigerian talking drummer and Santeria, some Cuban singers and dancers. They were recording and dancing at the same time because they couldn’t sing the Santeria songs without dancing.
MGS: You should’ve filmed the recording sessions.
JD: Who knew? Who knew? These were the sounds that we imagined these Africans heard during the Middle Passage because those slave ships were comprised of not just Americans; they were British, Irish, Dutch, Indian, Islamic. There were all kinds of people upstairs. It was three months. What did they do? They sang, they probably played flutes, they had drums. There was a sound that they heard. We created a New-World sound comprised of all these different sounds and instruments just to make it totally immersive and different and to shock you into thinking new thoughts about historical events and issues.
MGS: I read an interview where you said this film was like science fiction.
JD: Yeah, they’re “what-if” scenarios. What if they heard it like this? Rather than just go the same old harmonica route, I was determined I was not going to have a harmonica or a banjo. You know that sound.
MGS: Yeah, it comes from other movies. I’m from North Carolina and I can’t stand to hear a fake southern accent in a movie. Actors doing southern accents always talk like they’re in Gone with the Wind but nobody talks like that in the South.
JD: Gone with the Wind! People from Mississippi speak different from people in Alabama and North Carolina and South Carolina. And you have the Gullah/Geechee dialect, which sounds like Nigerian. The first time I heard it, I walked into a 7-11, as an adult, and I walked in and these guys were talking and I couldn’t understand a word of what they were talking about. And they quickly stopped and went into English because everyone was always hiding if you were an outsider. My grandmother would even say a few things and you’d go, “What did you say?” They wouldn’t share anything because they loved the fact that they had this information but at the same time they’d been told over and over and over that to be a Geechee was to be the lowest of the low in African-American society. If you wanted to insult someone, you called them “low-down Geechee.”
MGS: It’s probably not the same today though, right?
JD: No. It has changed. A lot has changed since Daughters of the Dust too. Take a look at Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Story. Norman Jewison directed the film. It explains it all. It’s set in World War II among black soldiers. One of them was a Geechee who had to be killed because it was time that the Negro race uplifted itself and you couldn’t have those Geechees around. (Laughing) Wow.
MGS: I’d like to ask you about the costumes. They’re very elaborate for an independent film. Was it difficult to recreate period clothes on a low budget?
JD: We had people who sewed in Savannah, we had people sewing all over the place. I had access to a bunch of photographs that were housed at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. If we had more money, I would’ve been able to make the hats that went along with it. They had black hats – this shiny kind of straw hat but flattop and maybe a ribbon coming off of it or something. We just couldn’t.
MGS: And those photographs were your visual reference for the costumes?
JD: Yes, and also to place them on the beach. Because when I originally wrote it I had them under a big tree – a little trope-ish – and I was like, “Oh! They’re in the sand dunes?” So we shifted to the sand dunes. Just in Mill Valley a few weeks ago, I had several questions about the costumes. People kept saying, “Why are they wearing white dresses?” Once again, that goes back to Gone with the Wind. People are fixated, in a very myopic way, on how African Americans look in historical drama and there’s no reference point where you see them except if you look at – now they have so many historical books and you can see the pictures and they all had the white dresses on. They were seamstresses. So I made sure that all of the dresses that they were wearing, these Gibson Girl-like dresses, were at least 10 to 15 years older, late 1800s style rather than 1902. They were hand-me-downs. They were old and yellowing, some were kind of torn and raggedy. Because they only had two outfits: that would be their summer/Sunday/go-to-meeting outfit. And then you’d have your everyday/work outfit. This was a special day. This was a celebration: it was coming together to say goodbye so everybody was dressed up in their Sunday/go-to-meeting. And that’s usually the same dress that you’re buried in too. Same thing with the suits with the men: they were purposely done so it was like, “This wasn’t made for him. He acquired this.” And the kids really got raggedy. But a lot of people still have problems with the costumes because, in their minds, they’re fixated on the “Mammy” dress and the headwrap, the do-rag, which is not even accurate. There’s so much that’s inaccurate but it’s the standard and so we’re here to change all that. And I think it’s more interesting to see things that are actually different.
MGS: The use of slow-motion is incredible. Did you shoot that in-camera?
JD: Oh, you noticed it? Yes, we had a camera that was a prototype. Sometimes someone would be walking, then she’d wait, then it goes into slow-motion (in the middle of a shot). The speed-aperture control thing used to keep freezing on us. We had a hair-dryer we had to keep putting on it because of the humidity down there because of the ocean. So it would shut down. But that variable-speed motor – it was called speed aperture computer at the time – now they have it together but it was a prototype at the time. That was part of the – I don’t want to say “magic” – but of the voodoo of it, the science fiction. It’s almost imperceptible: someone’s moving and then the motion changes. It does have a visceral effect. It’s like visual dubstep.