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Director Julie Dash on the 25th anniversary restoration of 'Daughters of the Dust'

Written by
Michael Smith

Julie Dash's landmark 1991 indie film Daughters of the Dust, the first feature directed by an African-American woman to receive a theatrical release, has been the subject of renewed interest this year due to the fact that it's a major reference point in Beyoncé's "visual album" Lemonade. Daughters has been newly restored for its 25th anniversary and will receive a one-week theatrical re-release at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning on Friday, November 25. I recently spoke to Dash about the film when she was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival.

Tell me about this new restoration of Daughters of the Dust. I read that you didn’t properly color time it when it was originally released. 

Correct. We didn’t have enough money to continue. Because back in the analog days, every answer print—you know, the whole: answer print, answer print, answer print to release print?— we got to the second answer print and that was $20,000. And it was like “Enough!” I mean, at this point, let’s get this show on the road! We can’t go any further. It was the cost. And so that answer print did not look like the work print we worked on. The work print looked better. 

Were you personally involved in the new restoration?

We brought back in [cinematographer Arthur Jafa] to sit with the people timing it and doing the scan. And—whoo!—we got it just in time. The original elements were starting to deteriorate. They scanned it twice in 2K. We couldn’t afford 4K. Once again! 

It’s great that it’s getting re-released theatrically.

That was not even on my agenda. That came as an utter and complete wonderful surprise. I just wanted it scanned and I just wanted a Blu-ray, you know? And we had it done. And then… Lemonade. And it was like, “Wow. This is wonderful. This is great stuff.” And people were saying, “Well, what is Daughters of the Dust? What is this thing?” And I was like, “Yeah, we have it. We’re planning to release it on Blu-ray.” And then Tim [Lanza of Cohen Media] called and said he had a conversation with Charles Cohen. And they decided: “Let’s do a re-release.” I was like, “In the theaters?” I don’t really see the precedent for this because it’s not like it’s Lawrence of Arabia.

This re-release makes me happy because Daughters of the Dust is a film that was really ahead of its time.

It came at a time when everyone, in terms of independent filmmakers and artists and experimental filmmakers, we were all looking for new ways of telling stories. I said, “I’m going to create this griot story structure—like the way an African griot would recall and recount a family’s history—and I’m going to write this.” And everything was all good and hunky-dory and great. And then (when it was originally released) people were like, “Well, this is like a foreign film.” And I think the wider general audience, they were more open to it than the established—how should I say it?—the curators of culture.

Including critics?

Yeah. The curators of culture were saying, “This is a difficult film.” Difficult? It’s straightforward! They come and say goodbye, it’s a picnic, and then they go on. It’s the Great Migration, you know what I mean? The Industrial Revolution.

But it’s not plot-driven. It doesn’t go from point A to point B to point C. 

Yeah, it’s not binary. It’s not “This then that.” But don’t they teach you in film schools not to do “This then that?”

Yeah, especially if you want to be an independent filmmaker!

Why?! We have the binary already. And it’s not something that, at the end of film, I say, “I was just kidding!” In anything that really has to do with another culture that’s not Western, it’s taken as something scary or something to be feared or something that’s being subversive. No, I’m just saying, “Look, hey, man, this is what’s out there.”

The film was also ahead of its time in terms of the subject matter because you’re dealing with the aftermath of slavery, which was not a fashionable subject in cinema in 1991.

I was dealing with the first generation of freeborn African Americans heading towards the Industrial Revolution. I thought that was a great idea. Instead of showing the whip marks on someone’s back or something, I just made their hands blue. Everyone who was once a slave, their hands were blue from working in the indigo fields. And how is that subversive? I thought it was straightforward. People were saying “Why did you make it so difficult?”

It’s not difficult but it avoids formulas and stereotypes.

That’s what we’re tasked to do, right? To find other ways of saying the same thing, to find visual metaphors of what we already know so it will have more of an impact and we’ll go “A-ha!” Because, after you watch a couple slave movies, someone’s getting whipped and you become anesthetized. But when you see someone’s hands are blue, you go, “Oh shit! That was some rough work.” And I just wanted people to see it wasn’t just about picking cotton and someone blowing a harmonica. And so the music was totally different too. I’m really proud of John Barnes’ score because he and I sat down together and talked about what’s the sound of New-World music. What came before jazz? He brought in an Iranian santur player, a Pakistani drummer, a Nigerian talking drummer and Santeria, some Cuban singers and dancers. They were recording and dancing at the same time because they couldn’t sing the Santeria songs without dancing.

I read an interview where you said this film was like science fiction.

Yeah, they’re “what-if” scenarios. What if they heard it like this? Rather than just go the same old harmonica route, I was determined I was not going to have a harmonica or a banjo. You know that sound.

I’d like to ask you about the costumes. They’re very elaborate for an independent film. Was it difficult to recreate period clothes on a low budget? 

We had people who sewed in Savannah, we had people sewing all over the place. I had access to a bunch of photographs that were housed at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. If we had more money, I would’ve been able to make the hats that went along with it.

And those photographs were your visual reference for the costumes?

Yes, and also to place them on the beach. People are fixated, in a very myopic way, on how African Americans look in historical drama and there’s no reference point where you see them except if you look at—now they have so many historical books and you can see the pictures and they all had the white dresses on. They were seamstresses. So I made sure that all of the dresses that they were wearing, these Gibson Girl-like dresses, were at least 10 to 15 years older, late 1800s style rather than 1902. They were hand-me-downs. They were old and yellowing, some were kind of torn and raggedy.

The use of slow-motion is incredible. Did you shoot that in-camera?

Oh, you noticed it? Yes, we had a camera that was a prototype. That was part of the—I don’t want to say “magic” —but of the voodoo of it, the science fiction. It’s almost imperceptible: someone’s moving and then the motion changes. It does have a visceral effect. It’s like visual dubstep.

Daughters of the the Dust plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center November 25–December 1.

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