Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcoming trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmospheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Halfway to our destination, the Royal Frogmore Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the difference between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.
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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contraction of ‘Angola.’
But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black independent film crits, Clyde Taylor.
Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Regional Fellowship, $9000 from the Georgia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.
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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and focused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only because her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detailing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.
Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, perpetually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lipstick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamikaze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.
The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Bernard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo processing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to portray a slave in a flashback scene.
Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morrison, particularly evident in Dash’s handling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian conversion. Opposing her is Hagar — an educated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” religion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, pregnant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dramatis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.
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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner demons — an Africanist switch on conventional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black women’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testimony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-American women.
Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Geechee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being renowned for their shrimp and crab fishing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.
Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxophonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an industrial film producer for 15 years. Neither of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a filmmaker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.
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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Daydreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddlesome churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.
Mom could relate: she was a daydreamer too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Carolina. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daughters playacting in bathing suits. Recording this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to daydream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.
The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Goldfinger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”
California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One reason Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary filmmaking then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.
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In L.A., Dash became one of the youngest fellows in American Film Institute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize winner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”
Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The author’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page critique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”
Dash wound up making her AFI graduate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fantasy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t invented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reality all the time.”
Illusions stirs up a racial identity quagmire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wannabee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sexism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illusions is unique in black independent cinema for its period setting, specially constructed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mistake. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.
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The scenes shot for this round of production involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Caldonia. Rogers is also a “new music” vocalist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.
Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set succubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.
For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.
This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabinets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As waterfront properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.
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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waistlength coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green contacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barbara-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s variations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the mountains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I realize Daughters of the Dust has the potential to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “women’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough attitude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.
True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agencies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write something geared toward white midwesterners. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellectual exercise” beyond primetime comprehension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the endorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance fortified by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.
Knowing that racism is behind the institutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black independent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖
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UPLIFT THE RACE
Black Independents’ Coming Attractions
Yes, Virginia, there is a black independent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.
Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Super 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phantasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and producer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desperately hope. ■