Decades before Ava DuVernay ‘s Queen Sugar and Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade,” there was Julie Dash and her 1991 masterpiece Daughters of the Dust.
Set in 1902, the iconic independent film tells the story of the Peazansts, a Black family living in a Gullah community on a tiny island off of the South Carolina coast. The descendants of former West African slaves, the family adopted many of their ancestors’ Yoruba traditions, and are currently suffering from a split, as the younger generation prepares to leave the island and their matriarch behind for the promise of the mainland.
This stunning and emotional film is like nothing that you’ve ever seen before.
Narrated by an unborn Peazanst child, the film breaks the linear rule of storytelling by weaving in and out of the present, the past and the subconscious. Its sweeping cinematography and rich colors lure you into their Sea Island existence that is inundated with African retentions, ancestral ghosts, deep familial bonds and dance. And the innovative (and historically accurate) aesthetics of women rocking white doily dresses, floor-length column skirts and petticoats, make you rethink every other period piece about us you’ve laid eyes on prior.
Not surprisingly, it was a critics’ darling, winning the Cinematography Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. In addition to rave reviews, in 2004, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.
It’s also important to point out that Daughters of the Dust didn’t just reimagine the ways that Black women’s lives were depicted on the large screen—it made history. In 1991, Dash became the first African-American female director to achieve nationwide theatrical distribution of a feature film. And now twenty-five years later, thanks to “Lemonade” (and it’s Daughters of The Dust-inspired visuals) and Cohen Media, the award-winning film has been fully restored and is back in theaters to inspire a new generation.
HelloBeautiful sat down with Dash to talk about the re-release of her debut feature, how she inspired one of the year’s biggest pop culture moments and the future of Black art in a Trump presidency.
HelloBeautiful: Of all of the stories about Black women, why this particular one? Why 1902?
Julie Dash: I have family from the community and so I had questions about my ancestors. I learned more about them when I attended UCLA and used their research library and oral history projects—and it was fascinating. I also read books such as Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect and Melville J. Herskovits’ The Myth of the Negro Past, which also laid out how influential Africans were and are in our current culture. So much of how we talk and how we cook comes from that history that was almost erased.
Doing that research for this film was important because I wanted to make something authentic to my culture. And that meant the costumes and design, which caused some to have a visceral reaction to it.
Why do you think that was?
We often tend to fall back on the gold start typical way of how we’ve been depicted to shape our perceptions. Roots was inaccurate in design and costume, but we just take that for granted and think that’s just how it really was. Like I said before, I wanted to do something authentic and I used actual photographs from those times to create our Daughters Of The Dust. But 25 years ago, people accused me of having the wrong costumes. They told me directly, “Why are they wearing white dresses on? That’s not how it was.”
That disbelief exists because they had never seen it before. But we have to realize that we are more than who television tells us we are.
How did you react those accusations?
I just smiled and said that there is much more film that needs to be done—we’ve believed the myth instead of the reality.
How excited are you about the re-release and restoration? How did it come about?
I am thrilled! We were in the works to do a restoration for a 25th anniversary digital Blu-Ray with our distributor Cohen Media. But then after the release of “Lemonade, ” I was asked about doing a theatrical re-release to which I was like “Really? OK!”
Speaking of Queen Bey, how does it feel to have inspired the visuals for one of the biggest pop culture moments of this year—perhaps the past decade?
Wow. You know no one has asked me that before.
Really? It’s such a big deal!
No one has asked that way. When it came out, a friend was like “Did you see Lemonade?” And I was like “Yeah it was great and I loved it. ” And we kind of left it at that. So to actually see that it was the biggest pop culture moment of the year and that Daughters of Dust helped inspired that…I am sort of speechless. Perhaps this is a stalled effect. You are making me feel really good [Laughs].
Well, that really speaks to depth and power of your our work. What do hope that a new generation of Black directors will learn from Daughters of The Dust?
I hope that just like Beyoncé—they will take it several steps further—and present and create new visual metaphors to help reimagine and redefine our lives. Also despite the challenges, try to be bold and daring and authentic with your work.
In this #OscarsSoWhite Hollywood and slow rise of Black female directors, how has the industry stayed the same since Daughters of The Dust? How much has it changed?
It was very difficult back then to get our voices made into film and to get distribution (and still is now). There were other Black female filmmakers before me—but they needed distribution. Even after Daughters of the Dust, yes, I did a few cable movies such as The Rosa Parks Story, but I have yet to do another feature film.
I could never convince anyone to finance any of the other scripts that I had written. Maybe they thought all I wanted to do was do ‘Daughters of The Dust Part 2,’ which I did, but I had other ideas. [Laughs] The other part was that Hollywood was certainly interested in what I was saying, but they want stories told their way, which wasn’t how I was telling our stories.
Now, granted we have a lot of work ahead us, but we are seeing directors such as Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees tell their stories with success. I would definitely love to work with them.
There are a lot of concerns about the President-elect and what his dangerous policies will mean for the future of this country. How do you believe Black art will impacted?
I was so shocked with the election results, so I haven’t done a lot a lot advanced thinking about this because I’m still processing. But I do remember the Reagan years and what that mean to the arts—the cutbacks on certain programs and how people who were affected during those times. So yes, I have my concerns, but our voices will always continue to thrive.
Finally, what are you working on now?
In addition to teaching, I am currently working on the documentary Travel Notes Of A Geechee Girl, which is about the life of writer and culinary anthropologist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. I’m also going to continue to pitch my scripts and continue to try to get my stories told and my voice heard.
Learn more about Daughter’s Of The Dust and whether it’s playing at theater near you here.
***This interview was edited for clarity and length.