Julie Dash’s landmark ‘Daughters of the Dust’ is reborn
Julie Dash’s 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” was the first film directed by an African American woman to get a nationwide theatrical release. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, its director of photography, Arthur Jafa, won best cinematography. In 2004, it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Rapturously lyrical, wholly original, it’s been called “a landmark achievement” and “one of the most distinctive, original independent films of its time.”
And yet Dash - though she has since made a number of noted shorts and television films - hasn’t gotten another chance to direct a feature film. “I’m the poster child for if you make a film that’s deeply authentic, you may be benched for many, many years,” Dash, 64, said in a recent interview. “If you make a film that’s more pop or trendy or fits into various tropes, people are more comfortable with you and your ideas. “But that’s not the reason we became filmmakers.”
Dash never got the second shot she deserved, but “Daughters of the Dust” - widely cited as an inspiration to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” - has only gained in esteem over the years. For its 25th anniversary, Cohen Media Group has digitally restored the film. Beginning Friday with New York’s Film Forum, the restored “Daughters of the Dust” is heading back into theaters. “It’s perhaps not as much as a shock to the system as it was for some in ‘91, ‘92 when we were seeing a lot of African-American male urban films,” said Dash, speaking by phone from Atlanta. “This was so very, very different from all that.”
“Daughters of the Dust,” set in 1902, is about the Gullah women of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. Their isolation from the mainland helped its people preserve much of their African heritage, culture and language. Dash was partly inspired by writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Melville Jean Herskovits, whose “The Myth of a Negro Past” detailed the deep cultural roots that African-American slaves carried with them. In “Daughters of the Dust,” some are preparing for the post-Civil War migration north. It’s a moment of both loss and new beginning, rendered emotionally and poetically by Dash, a Queens native who grew up seeing foreign films at the Studio Museum of Harlem.
This image released by the Cohen Film Collection shows Alva Rogers as Eula Peazant, from left, Trula Hoosier as Trula and Barbara- O as Yellow Mary Peazant in a scene from “Daughters of the Dust.”