Of Homegirl Goddesses and Geechee Women
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has been described as the first translation of the sensibility found in contemporary Black women’s literature to the screen. Logocentrists and literary scholars beware: Dash’s achievement is not simply a matter of grafting the thematic concerns of Hurston, Morrison, Walker, and Naylor to the screen. The filmmaking magic and craft of Dash and her cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, shows through most brilliantly in the film’s comprehensive Afrocentric visual aesthetic and richness of period detail. Daughters evokes the spirituality and emotional depths of those writer’s mythopoeic prose styles. It is a film of visionary power conceived with a passion for pure research.
Ostensibly about a Gullah family whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ancestral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the 20th century, Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenishment of roots. Zeroing in on the family’s women, it captures the shifting faces of dignity, denial, yearning, and elegance that give shape and meaning to Black female subjectivity. Daughters is an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in terms of both world cinema and African aesthetics. In this it extends ten thousand-fold the canon of Black film to have emerged from the UCLA-based Black filmmakers Dash joined in the late ’70s — Charles Burnell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clarke, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woddberry, Zeinabu Davis. Pending a distribution deal this summer, the film should be in a theater near you this fall, making it the first feature-length film directed by an African-American woman to gain a national theatrical release. Anybody in need of more encouragement than this to give Julie Dash her props is just wasting my breath. — Greg Tate
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Greg Tate: Did you feel you were engaged in a heroic, historic act while you were making the movie?
Julie Dash: Absolutely. Everyone involved in Daughters was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up after the Middle Passage and before being sent to the ports of Charleston. Since we were working with available light, we’d go out and wait every morning for the sunrise. When the sun would rise everyone in the crew would stop unless we were actually shooting. Often people would weep. Then there were things like the sandstorm that hit us all of a sudden on a clear day in the middle of a heavy dramatic scene. It was like [whistles Twilight Zone theme]. We slopped shooting and ran for cover in the woods behind the beach. One of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, “You stirring too much stuff up girl.”
Tate: What do you use as a guidepost for translating African mysticism and spiritual experiences to the screen? How do you know you’re on the right track?
Dash: You don’t. Every morning I’d get up and say, please ancestors help me. All the rituals are based on extensive research. But sometimes you have to trust your gut to do or not do something. For instance, we found an ancient African graveyard, and the first thought was, this is great, these are slave graves, the old souls are buried here, we can construct our Ki-Kongo graveyard on top of this. We’ll be on sacred ground. We got our props there and our production designer Kerry Marshall looked at me, and said, “This is not right.” And I said, “You’re right, let’s go find ground where people aren’t buried.”
Tate: Why a story about the Gullah at the turn of the century?
Dash: The Sea Islands are sacred ground. All our ancestors came through these islands. I wanted to do a story set at the turn of the century about the first generation of free Blacks, and a story about a pivotal moment in the lives of the women of the family. Also, because my father’s family came from that area, I’ve heard Geechee and Gullah dialect, and eaten the food all my life. I don’t remember much from my visits during the summer when I was a kid, but I was influenced by the Geechees I knew on 165th and Amsterdam Ave. There was a bar called The Office and mostly Gullah and Geechee would go there. Whenever we wanted to call my father, we’d call The Office. My mother will die to hear me say that. For me hearing heavy Gullah dialect is not strange. My grandmother speaks that way.
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Tate: You made a decision to not do the film in a thick dialect with subtitles.
Dash: My original intention was to have thick Gullah language with subtitles and then segue into Gullah dialect. Some people seem to have problems with it, but to tell the truth, I had problems with Miller’s Crossing. It made me realize that I’ve done that all my life, pushed through on accents until I understood them. Why is it with Daughters of the Dust that people almost seem offended by it? When they bring it up, I tell them, “Release on it, you’ll understand it in a minute.” You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We have no other choice.
Tate: Does the whole question of whether you’re pushing an audience too hard ever come into it for you? When do you release on that?
Dash: I think it’s on a project-by-project basis. On Daughters it was about breaking through, doing something different. I mean, all the main characters are grounded in West African cosmology. The narrative is not driven by the Greek gods but Oshun, Oya-Yansa, Yemoja, Eshu-Elegba. Then there’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening. We have a master talking drummer playing messages very subtly throughout the film, saying in Yoruba, “Remember me, remember my name, take me with you, take me where you go.” I know people can’t understand it, but I want it working on people’s subconscious. All the music by John Barnes was composed in certain astrological keys. We had Santeria high priestesses came in and sang secret songs to Oshun. There’s so much working in this film that has never been done before. All the principal actors had worked in films by other Black independent directors. We worked with fine artists like David Hammons, Tyrone Mitchell, Kerry Marshall, Michael Kelly Williams, Martha Jackson-Jarvis. All these people coming together make it an exciting grand experiment.
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Tate: In terms of Black female iconography and beauty, Daughters is a breakthrough.
Dash: We brought in Pamela Ferrell of Cornrows Incorporated from D.C. This woman is a master cornrower and hairstylist who studied in Africa. We have hairstyles representing people from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. We didn’t take anything lightly. I remember many years ago I was doing an internship on Roots when I was al the AFI, and of course all the hair-dressers were white. Being my young naïve self I asked them what gave them the idea for giving these slave women pressed hair. One said to me, “Oh yes, we researched this, and they were trying to emulate their masters.” I thought, wait a minute. Would the people in Dachau, if they could, try to dress, or even act, like their German captors? It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that you’ve never seen that hairstyle in any drawings or photographs from the period.
Tate: The film is praise-song to the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. But, I heard, that after the screening a few weeks back, one black woman critic reduced Daughters to being a film that was “about hair.”
Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a Black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by all these other images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a “real woman.” There’s a lot of drama around Black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. I could try and be a filmmaker who was myopic about it, like this really isn’t an issue, but it would be untrue. The other thing is, in all other types of films, you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one notices. You have Black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden, you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen on the screen before, and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.
Tate: Body language is more important than dialogue in Daughters, and a lot of other Black women’s films, as a way of communicating.
Dash: Body language was important in West Africa. Women standing arms akimbo, hands on hips — was first seen in this country through slave women doing that. The young child straddling the mother’s hip is another example. Averting the eyes, turning your face away from someone you respect, like a grandparent, is a West African sign of respect that still persists in the Black community. Those motor habits persist.
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Tate: In terms of world cinema, how do you see Daughters?
Dash: I think it’s a timeless piece, not something that’s trendy for right now. It’s a huge photograph that whoever sees it could take and put in their mind’s eye, and walk around to the end of their days and feel better about a whole lot of things. It’s like a balm. I think people will look at it 10, 20 years from now and discover new things and new emotions in it. You won’t be able to do that with a whole lot of other films.
Tate: You think there’s a popular audience out there for it?
Dash: I think the audience we get will suprise some people. It clearly frightens most white males and they are the ones who get to say what kind of audience is out there for a Daughters of the Dust. They don’t understand it for the most part and don’t want to say that they don’t, so they say it’s not good, or it’s not well crafted or the dramatic themes were spotty. Daughters should be promoted as a woman’s film, as an art film. It’s not a homeboy film, it’s not even a homegirl film. It’s interesting that most of the people doing the homeboy/homegirl films didn’t grow up in that section [of the city]. I grew up in the projects so I’m not doing those types of films.
Tate: Could you ever see yourself making a film about growing up in the projects?
Dash: Yes, I could, but it would be very different from what we have out there now. Those are coming-of-age films for males and I’m not gonna do that.
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Tate: How has Black women’s literature affected your work?
Dash: That’s the reason I’m doing it. I stopped making documentaries after discovering Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker in high school. I’d wondered, why can’t we see movies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative movies. I couldn’t believe it when I first read books like Toni Morrison’s Sula and Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love, I’d put the books down and say, I know these people. I’ll never forget reading about “the Deweys” in Sula, and thinking that the lady who took care of me would do this. Name all three of her kids Dewey, like it didn’t matter. Miz Edwards. As I think back on it, she had a profound effect on me, because she would comb my hair and burn it so no one could get hold of it. And talk about hiding your pictures so no one could put gopher dust on them and drive you crazy. All this kind of stuff became normal to me, not something you have to point out. So when I have stuff like that in my films, it’s not like, look, we’re about to pour on this ritual now. I see these things as a part of our everyday life. It’s our culture and tradition. ❖