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How Julie Dash Became the First Black Woman to Helm a Theatrically Distributed Movie

The women sitting together under an umbrella while holes in it on the beach in 'Daughter of the Dust,' directed by Julie DashDaughters of the Dust directed by Julie Dash is a 1991 feature-length, tone-poem of a narrative centered on a Gullah Geechee family’s generational ties to their coastal South Carolina community. Dash’s family history inspires the lushly visual narrative.

This super independent film shot on an $800k budget is a slow burn in its patient storytelling and its recognition as one of the most important films of the 1990s—if not all time. Dash’s feature writer/director debut marked the first general theatrical distribution for a film helmed by a Black woman.

Sundance awarded Arthur Jafa’s cinematography for this film, but it took far longer for people to celebrate it as a masterpiece than it should have. However, its cultural impact speaks volumes today.

The Bey-utiful Revival

Beyonce’s iconic 2016 visual album Lemonade pulls aesthetic and cultural motifs directly from Dash’s work. This led to a re-release of the film with coverage in publications ranging from Essence to Vanity Fair

The Southern Gothic influences wrapped up in images of traditional Black femininity are a direct homage, with scenes gracefully reinterpreted for the musical work. As Beyonce has cited the strength of her own family’s roots as the main inspiration for Lemonade, it’s a touching acknowledgment of the role of matriarchs in southern Black communities. 

“Most explicitly of all, both films showcase rare glimpses of black womanhood and black women’s relationships with one another when men or white people aren’t around. Black women drive the entire storyline in Daughters of the Dust, with male members of the village dropping in occasionally to add to the narrative. Both films are celebrations of the diversity of black womanhood. This is shown through the wide array of traditional black hairstyles on show and the true reflection of the variety of skin tones that exist among black people. The clean, white, period costuming of Daughters of the Dust was also an influence on the costumes for Lemonade, which were modernised to create a high-fashion revisioning of Dash’s film.”

— Stephanie Phillips, BFI

Read More: 5 Multi-Hyphenate Women Filmmakers Making It Happen

Three women in long white dresses walking on the beach in 'Daughters of the Dust,' directed by Julie Dash

‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1992)

Julie Dash, One of the Best Filmmakers of All Time, Shut out by Hollywood

In 2022, Daughters of the Dust was ranked between Casablanca (1942) and La Dolce Vita (1960) on Sight and Sound’s uber-prestigious poll via the British Film Institute.

“Dash’s visionary visual marriage between Afrocentric aesthetics and the rich emotional depth of Black womanhood is a cinematic triumph … [It] remains an enduring symphony that sings, reframes, and reignites a Black girl’s song.”

— Maya S. Cade, Sight and Sound

It’s no surprise that it took the UK to make amends for the American film industry’s mistake in shutting Julie Dash out. To be fair, the film did make the National Film Registry in 2004. 

“I pitched to every existing studio out there and every mini-major from A to Z,” Ms. Dash, 66, said over morning coffee in early September here in Toronto, where the film festival was screening “Daughters,” to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

She also couldn’t get an agent, even though “Daughters” drew capacity crowds during its 1992 run at Film Forum, followed by a monthslong engagement at the Village East cinema. “One agency told me I had no future,” Ms. Dash said. “Another company, a mini-major, said it was a fluke.”

The New York Times

As The New York Times article displays, Ava DuVernay was one of the most recognizable names to champion Dash during her resurgence. DuVernay’s Queen Sugar (2016) would grant Dash her most prestigious directing credit since Daughters of the Dust

In a 2020 interview with DuVernay and equally historic Black woman filmmaker Euzhan Palcy, Dash gets into the nitty gritty of the craft in a conversation highlighting the genius at the root of the representation. As writer Tonja Renee Stidhum points out, Black women in the industry are never asked about craft as much as their counterparts from other demographics. From Dash’s story, it’s plain to see that the wider industry’s dismissal of their artistry always comes from the cheap seats. 

Read More: Killer Career Advice From Screenwriter & Director Ava Duvernay

Several women in long white dresses climbing in a tree in 'Daughters of the Dust'

‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1992)

A Literary Darling After the Screen

Since the initial release of Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash has authored two books inspired by the groundbreaking feature film. One of these books is Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, a nonfiction behind-the-scenes look at the incredible 16-year fight to finish the masterpiece, co-authored by late great literary titans and scholars Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks. 

The book argues the significance of Dash’s historic feat as the first African-American woman to write and direct a nationally distributed feature film. The movie depicts the little known world of an African American sea island family as they get ready to move to the mainland. Julie Dash’s artistic importance pairs with the historical as she conjures the subtleties of a lingering African culture and the difficulties between tradition and assimilation in this beautifully nuanced, highly visual and poetic account of their final day in their home.

The entire screenplay is also included in Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film.

The second of these works is Daughters of the Dust: A Novel, a novelized sequel twenty years after the original film. Dash is the sole author.

In this 1920s-set literary follow-up, Daughters of the Dust tells the story of the Peazant family, a large and proud family that traces their roots back to the Ibo people once brought to the Carolina Sea Islands as slaves. Amelia Peazant studies anthropology in her native New York, which draws her to the history of her material homeland, Dawtuh Island. However, Amelia has never understood why her family chose to stay on the island, sequestered from the modern world.

When she gains the opportunity to travel to the island and research her history for a thesis, Amelia is shocked by the wealth of knowledge she uncovers. Several generations of Peazants share with her stories of “the first man and woman” who miraculously walked across the ocean to return to Africa, the inherent balances between the genders, and the indelible link between African and Native American cultures. As she absorbs this information, Amelia grows closer to her family and their customs, and Amelia must grow her own branch in the family tree with her ancestors’ guidance.

A group of women in dresses gathered on a beach in 'Daughters of the Dust'

‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1992)

More Than a Legacy

It’s a treat to see that Julie Dash’s sprawling ode to her roots is available to view for free on Tubi, which has given so many independent Black artists a space to screen their work to the world. Feast your eyes and your mind on this evergreen delight as soon as you can.

Read More: How to Bring Diversity and Representation to Your Script