For those who know me, it should come as no surprise that Julie Dash is among my favorite contemporary black female directors. Her work ranges from the political to the fluffy goodness in ways that always center cultural knowledge and historicity. She, like our previous featured director, also takes a critical eye to historiography and to the writing/righting back in of black women’s experiences and lives into a national level narrative. Also like our previous featured director, her films include reference to experiences that are largely outside of the traditional contemporary black imaginary as well, whether it be in highlighting the Gullah people or the southern black bourgeoisie. She has also taken a foray into addressing historical figures and currently has a deal with Lifetime Movie Network that ensured both the airing of her Rosa Parks Story last week and the upcoming showcasing of Love Song tomorrow for Valentine’s Day.
In 1992, Julie Dash became the first African American female director to have her full length film receive widescreen release. The film, Daughters of the Dust, addressed the critical shift from African culture centered black communities in the South to African-American identity, facilitated by northern migration, through the lens of strong black women. As her film unfolds we are told about the important contributions of African peoples and especially African women to North American culture, including such little remembered things as the introduction of Indigo and herbal rememedies important for early reproductive choice. The film’s scope is far reaching but also includes themes of memory, culture, sexuality, upward mobility, assimulation and lost his/her/story, religion(s), social activism, and freedom. And all of these themes are embodied in the various female characters in the film and explored through their interactions with one another as well as their own imaginings of themselves. Ultimately, this profoundly moving, experimental film, does more to address both the particularities of Gullah culture and the general contibutions and concerns of black Americans to the nation than many more straightforward films have done in the past. its centering of women and female culture made it all the more important and provocative as we are often written out.
Since its release, Daughters has been honored by the Newark Black Film Festival as one of the most important cinematic achievements in black film in the 20th century and as a National Treasure by the Library of Congress. This recognition serves to cement the importance of black women’s herstories and black female directors who continue to struggle to get financing and promoted release in Hollywood.
Dash has also produced two traditional films about black history: The Rosa Parks Story, starring Angela Basset and Cicely Tyson, and Brothers of the Borderland. The former garnered incredible attention for a made for TV film due to its historical accuracy and telling of lesser known information about Parks and others involved in the civil rights movement. It both honored that key moment on the bus but moved us into the larger discussion about the right to vote and to equality, Parks’ own involvement in organizations like the NAACP and her long term commitment to civil rights, as well as centering women in a movement that has often canonized important male figures while leaving female figures behind. Dash’s historiographical work on the film made her the first African American woman nominated for a SAG Award for Primetime Movies Made for Television. Its contribution to the stories of the Civil Rights era has made it a favorite in middle and high school celebrations of black history month as well.
Brothers of the Borderland was also considered an honor to make by Dash as she had been specifically requested by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to make the film. In an interesting connection of powerful black women, the film is shown in the Harriet Tubman theater, centers on a female character named Alice, whose is an amalgamation of actual escaped female slaves, is narrated by Oprah Winfrey, and directed by Dash. Like her other historical efforts, Brothers centers a seldom discussed part of our history: the trials and hopes wrapped up in life on the border between free and slave states. Prior to the civil war, Ripley Ohio was a hotbed for “illegal border crossings” and escape slave hunts in which abolitionist and pro-slavery white people clashed nightly over the meaning of citizenship and freedom, and black people exerted their rigts to both. The film is based on primary resource documents including the letters between abolitionist Rev. John Rankin and John Parker, a free African American, who help Alice get to freedom.
Dash also turned her historical craft and cinematic eye on important black female artists, including: Wheatley, Nina Simone, and Walker. Her choreofilm on Nina Simone’s 4 women blended information about Simone’s own life with the subjects of her poem and African American choreography in order to give a visually stunning modern historical narrative of an important black female musical figure. While her film Diary of an African Nun brought Walker’s musings about white femininity and culture, religious colonialism, and African herstory to life on film in black and white image designed to mimic the austerity Walker’s character rallies against as well as the culture clash at the center of her concerns. Dash also wrote an original screenplay about Zora Neale Hurston and worked to adapt a powerful performance by the Urban Bush Women, a theatrical troupe that explores black women’s experiences and marginalization through dance.
Dash has also ventured into mainstream film while still keeping true to her vision of African American women’s experiences. One of her first mainstream film’s Love Song aired on MTV and helped launch MTV films. The movie was originally imagined by MTV execs as a vehicle to showcase then up and coming musicians Beyonce Knowles and Justin Timberlake, both of whom were looking at the movie as an opportunity to transition into acting. Due to conflicts of the set which have never been fully revealed, both singers left the project, making the way for soft spoken Monica and established actor Christian Kane to take on the roles. While Monica’s acting was not academy award winning, I doubt it was any worse than Beyonce’s would have been. She also brought a soft spoken quiet to the film that was urgently needed to make the character believable and when she freestyles in the club or harmonizes with Kane’s soulful bluesy rendition of the titular song, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role.
I’ve said before that Love Song is black bougie cheesy goodness. It centers on an upperclass black woman whose life has pretty much been mapped out for her but who ultimately dares to follow her dreams of social justice, music, and real love instead. She is flanked by her two bestfriends Rachel True and Essence Atkins, who along with Tyress and real world start Tek, illustrate the sometimes hilarious preoccupations of the black upperclass as the oscillate between deeply committed intellectual activists, soul poets, race men and women, and typical people with money who just want to shop, go to college, and fall in love with people similar to them.
In so doing, it exposes the hypocrisy of some of our deeply held fronting as well as challenging the ongoing depiction of African American lives as tragedy (as Nikki Giovanni so adeptly describes in her def poetry jam appearance in which she discusses “the [myth of the] black past” as “never happy.”) Though the film fell into obscurity, partially because its political commentary and side stories were more than MTV bargained for, it helped launch the show Half and Half and has recently been given new lease on Lifetime. (If you have not seen it, make sure you tune in tomorrow. It is a great date movie & it is not available on DVD and only used on VHS blame MTV)
She continued to mine the issues of the black middle class and female empowerment in both Incognito and Funny Valentine also both made for tv. These films also returned her to the tradition of featuring established African American women actors like Woodard, Basset, and Tyson. In so doing, Dash’s career helped to also showcase both young and older actresses, new and pioneering stars.
Julie Dash also lent her talent to important social justice causes. She made short films and PSAs about breast cancer, HIV and AIDs, and Domestic Violece in the African American community. All of these were designed to raise the awareness of black women and help them identified their needs and how to get them met.
She is also the founder of Geechee Girls multimedia which is both her production company and attempt to move into ever more innovative technologies in film. One of her current experimental projects is Digital Diva.
Ultimately, Julie Dash has been an important voice in documenting the herstory of black women from our forced travels from the continent to civil rights, from our important literary, musical, and dance contributions to our place on the digital stage, Dash has made sure to document it all from a distinctly black feminist perspective. Her craft is its own form of activism, but she has also used it to highlight important social justice issues in our communities ranging from the HIV and AIDs epidimic to breast cancer; for those who do not know, both of these disease disproportionately impact black women and are more likely to kill us than any other group of women in the U.S. While not a member of the faculty, Dash is also a frequent speaker on college campuses and in college classrooms, and her latest project Geechee Girls hopes to excite and cultivate the talents of a new generation of black female intellectual-artists.
- portrait unattributed
- movie still Daughters of the Dust
- movie still Daughters of the Dust
- Production image Brothers of the Borderland
- Nina Simone album cover
- Love Song VHS cover