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Dash, Julie 1952(?)–

Julie Dash 1952(?)


At a Glance

Focused on African American Women

Explored Gullah Culture

Daughters of the Dust Reached the Big Screen

Selected writings


Despite a renaissance in black filmmaking, director Julie Dash received the cold shoulder from Hollywood executives when she approached them with her first feature-length film, Daughters of the Dust. Told that the film was too different to be marketable, Dash maintained in a Boston Globe interview that she was dismissed in a manner consistent with a systematic pattern of excluding black women from Hollywood. Undaunted, she has since had the film produced in collaboration with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and distributed by Kino International. And she remains confident: Im a very hopeful person, Dash told the Detroit Free Press,and I think we can accomplish a lot through film in the 90s. Were going to see a lot of film work done by black women who have different concerns than our brothers who make films.... We have strong statements to make because weve been silenced for so long.

The success of Daughters of the Dust the first nationally distributed feature-length film by an African American womanhas given the filmmaker every reason for optimism. Daughters of the Dust focuses on a family of Gullahsblacks living on islands off the southeastern coast of the United Statesat the dawn of the twentieth century. The film received critical acclaim and demonstrated widespread box office appeal. The Boston Globe called it mesmerizing; the Atlanta Constitution described it as poetry in motion; and the Village Voice said that Daughters of the Dust was an unprecedented achievement. Audiences have been equally forthcoming in their praise. A woman leaving a sold-out New York City premiere performance told New York magazine, Its hard to explain. It makes you feel connected to all those before you that you never knew, to parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Im a different person now from seeing this movie. Its a rejuvenation, a catharsis. Whatever color you are, people want to feel that sense of belonging. And then she burst into tears.

Born and raised in a Queens, New York, housing project, Julie Dash had little knowledge of her South Sea Island heritage until she noticed her fathers funny accent, she told the Los Angeles Times. Many years later she recognized it as Gullah, a West African-influenced English dialect preserved off the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, and northeastern Florida. Dashs father was only her first exposure to Gullah culture. She told the Village Voice that

At a Glance

Born c. 1952 in Queens, New York; married Arthur Jafa (separated); children: Nzinga. Education: Attended City College of New York; David Picker Film Institute, B.A., 1974; postgraduate study in film at American Film Institute and University of California at Los Angeles.

Wrote and produced promotional documentary Working Models of Success; directed adaptation of a short story by Alice Walker, Diary of an African Nun, 1977; produced experimental dance film Four Women, 1978; co-sponsored a screening of short films in the Marche du Cinema as part of the Cannes International Film Festival, 1980; directed short film titled Illusions, 1980; directed feature-length film Daughters of the Dust, released by Kino International, 1992. Member of Classifications and Ratings Administration for the Motion Picture Association of America, 1978-80.

Awards: Center for Advanced Film Studies fellow, American Film Institute; grant from National Endowment for the Arts, 1976; Los Angeles Film Expositions Directors Guild Award for student film for Diary of an African Nun; Miami International Film Festival Gold Medal for Women in Film, 1978, for Four Women; grant from Guggenheim Foundation, 1981; Black Cinema Society Award, 1985, for Illusions; grant from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1987; Black Filmmaker Foundations Jury Prize for best film of the decade, 1989, for Illusions; best cinematography award, Sundance Film Festival, 1991, for Daughters of the Dust; Fulbright fellow.

Addresses: Office Kino International Corporation, 333 West 39th Street, New York, NY 10018.

as a child she had encountered it daily through the rituals practiced by her caretaker, a woman who would burn the loose strands of Dashs hair after she had combed 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.

Dashs interest in film was piqued after the teenager enrolled in a film production course at the Studio Museum in Harlem. After a short stint in psychology at the City College of New York, she pursued the study of film at the Leonard Davis Center for the Arts in the David Picker Film Institute, where she would receive her bachelor of arts degree in 1974. While there, Dash wrote and produced Working Models of Success, a promotional documentary, for the New York Urban Coalition.

Armed with a two-year fellowship, Dash moved to Los Angeles in order to attend the Center for Advanced Film Studies at the American Film Institute. Studying under such distinguished filmmakers as William Friedkin, Jan Kadar, and Slavko Vorkapich, Dash established a solid foundation for her mature filmmaking style. Influenced by Vorkapichs fascination with kinesthetic movement in cinema, she produced Four Women, an experimental dance film that received a Gold Medal for Women in Film at the 1978 Miami International Film Festival. The theme of women in motion that Four Women explored would later become a central focus of Daughters of the Dust.

Dash honed her filmmaking skills at the University of California at Los Angeles. There she directed Diary of an African Nun, an adaptation of a short story by Alice Walker, in 1977. In fact, the literature of prominent black women authors played a significant role in Dashs decision to become involved with creative film. I stopped making documentaries after discovering Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker, she explained to the Village Voice. Id wondered, why cant we see movies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative movies.

Between 1978 and 1980 Dash worked as a member of the Classifications and Ratings Administration for the Motion Picture Association of America. As a voting member of a six-person board, she screened films for distribution in the United States, assigning audience ratings that would determine their viewership. In 1980, while on a special assignment screening at the Cannes International Film Festival, Dash co-sponsored a screening of short films in the Marche du Cinema. That screening led to a historic retrospective of Afro-American cinema held at Pariss Forum Les Halle in October of 1980.

Focused on African American Women

In 1983 Dash took on a project that would allow her to explore narrative film. Focusing on the role of black women in twentieth-century America, she directed the short Illusions, the first in an ongoing series. Set in a World War II Hollywood studio, Illusions examined the themes of sexual and racial discrimination through the portrayal of an African American woman passing for white. Critically acclaimed, the film received the Black Cinema Society Award in 1985 and, in 1989, was the recipient of the Black Filmmaker Foundations Jury Prize for best film of the decade.

In Illusions, the entity of the African American woman is depicted with a depth of character not often seen in American cinema. In all of Dashs films, said a Detroit Free Press contributor, black women belie the Hollywood stereotypes. Dashs black woman is a complex bundle of hope and regret, joy and pain, tenderness and fury, vulnerability and strength. Were bombarded with the same film images over and over, Dash proclaimed in the Free Press. And because were so desperate to see images of ourselves on screen, we go out and support them. Thats what makes the gatekeepers in Hollywood think thats all we want.

Explored Gullah Culture

With Daughters of the Dust Dash challenged the prevailing Hollywood perception. Taking place at the turn of the century on Ibo Landing, an island off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, the film tells the saga of a matriarchy of slave descendants on the eve of a new era. Isolated on the South Sea Islands, the family belongs to a community that has maintained its African-inspired Gullah society. Prior to the groups migration to the industrialized north, the familys multigenerational women struggle with the notion of relinquishing their ancestral traditions to become assimilated into dominant Western culture. While the family celebrates its Gullah heritage with a last supper, the women emerge as individualized characters with strongly held views.

Inspired by her own background, Dash directed the film in the manner of a griot, or storyteller, piecing together her tale from a series of evocative seaside tableaux. I wanted to tell the story like an African griot would, she told the Los Angeles Times. A griot is a man hired by families at celebrationsweddings, funerals, reunionswho over a period of several days would recount the familys history. Acting as Dashs narrators are an unborn child, whose impressionistic recollections skip playfully through the present and future, and the familys aging matriarch, who personifies the past. In the matriarchs words, We are two people in one body. The last of the old and the first of the new.

As the griots story unfolds, Dashs characters engage in a literal dance of life, frolicking on the seashore in hypnotic, dreamlike sequences. The poetry of their dance is complemented by John Barness musical scorea combination of African, Arabic, and New Age soundsand Arthur Jafas stunning cinematography. The sense of poetry that Daughters of the Dust evokes was no accident. What makes poets good, Dash explained to the Los Angeles Times, is that they take everyday language and rephrase it so that you never forget it. I wanted to take the African American experience and rephrase it in such a way that... the visuals would be so haunting it would break through with a freshness about what we already know.

Daughters of the Dust Reached the Big Screen

Historically accurate and rich in African symbolism, Daughters of the Dust was the product of ten years of intensive research. Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Dash wrote the script for the original filmthen intended to be a short filmin 1976, while studying at the American Film Institute. In 1981, with the aid of a Guggenheim Foundation grant, she continued her research, collecting oral histories of South Sea Islanders and studying the Gullah dialect. Dash won the support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1987; production of the film began two years later on a modest $800,000 budget.

With those funds Dash assembled a crew of local Gullah actors and began producing the film on location in the South Sea Islands. Everyone was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up... before being sent to the ports of Charleston, she explained in the Village Voice. Struck by Hurricane Hugo in mid-production, she continued, one of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, you stirring too much stuff up girl.

Although a film of Daughter of the Dusts epic proportions is a hard act to follow, Julie Dash has only just begun. Working on a Fulbright fellowship project in London, there is little doubt that she will continue to stir up too much stuff.

Selected writings

(And director) Daughters of the Dust (screenplay), Kino International, 1992.

(With bell hooks and Toni Cade Bambara) Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Womans Film, New Press, 1992.


Ann Arbor News, May 29, 1992.

Atlanta Constitution, March 13, 1992.

Boston Globe, March 20, 1992.

Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1992.

Detroit Free Press, May 21, 1992.

Emerge, January 1992.

Essence, February 1992.

Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1992; March 20, 1992.

New York, March 30, 1992.

New York Daily News, January 15, 1992.

Philadelphia Inquirer, February 21, 1992.

Village Voice, June 4, 1991; January 21, 1992.

Nina Goldstein

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"Dash, Julie 1952(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Dash, Julie

Dash, Julie

October 22, 1952

The filmmaker Julie Dash was born and raised in New York City. She began studying film as a teenager in 1969 at the Studio Museum of Harlem. After receiving a B.A. in film production from the City College of New York, Dash moved to Los Angeles to attend the Center for Advanced Film Studies at the American Film Institute (she is the youngest person ever to receive a fellowship to attend this institution). She later did graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Dash's films are sensitive, complex portrayals of the dilemmas confronting a diverse group of black women. While at the American Film Institute, she directed Four Women, an experimental dance film inspired by the Nina Simone song of the same title. The film won the 1977 Golden Medal for Women in Film at the Miami International Film Festival. In addition, she directed Diary of an African Nun, based on a short story by Alice Walker, during her time at the institute. This film was the 1977 winner of the Director's Guild Award. Her 1983 black-and-white short Illusions, the story of a fair-skinned black female film executive set in 1942, was nominated for a Cable ACE Award in art direction and is permanently archived at Indiana University and at Clark College in Atlanta.

In 1986 Dash relocated to Atlanta from Los Angeles and began work on Daughters of the Dust. Generally regarded as the first feature-length film by an African-American woman, Daughters of the Dust opened in 1992 to critical acclaim. Its nonlinear narrative, focusing on the Gullah culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands, centers on the lives of African-American women. They are the bearers of the culture, tellers of the tales, and most important, spectators for whom she created the film. Dash's approach to filmmaking has been "to show black women at pivotal moments in their lives [to] focus on and depict experiences that have never been shown on screen before."

Dash then moved to London to collaborate on a screenplay with Maureen Blackwood, a founding member of Sankofa Film and Video, a collective of young black British filmmakers. She also began work on a series of films depicting black women in the United States from the turn of the twentieth century to the year 2000. In 2002, Dash directed the highly acclaimed television movie The Rosa Parks Story, about the woman credited with spawning the modern civil rights movement. The movie was nominated for Black Reel and Directors Guild of America awards.

See also Film in the United States, Contemporary


Baker, Houston. "Not Without My Daughters." Transition 57 (1992): 150166.

Davis, Zeinabu Irene. "An Interview with Julie Dash." Wide Angle 13, nos. 3 and 4 (1991): 120137.

Klotman, Phyllis Rauch. "Julie Dash." In Screenplays of the African-American Experience edited by Phyllis Klotman, pp. 191195. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Mills, David. "A Dash of Difference." Washington Post, February 28, 1992, p. C1.

Ryan, Judylyn S. "Outing the Black Feminist Filmmaker in Julie Dash's Illusions. " Signs 30, No. 1 (Autumn, 2004): 13191344.

farah jasmine griffin (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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