In the realm of American independent film, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust is a landmark. Shot on St. Helena Island in South Carolina with an $800,000 budget and starring a predominantly black cast, the film focuses on three generations of Gullah women.
Gullah refers to African-Americans who reside in the low-country Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, and Dash's story, set in 1902, narrates the emotionally charged conflicts that ensue when several family members decide to migrate to the mainland.
Dust premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won a cinematography award. It's worth mentioning that the American indie scene was remarkably fertile in those days: Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino were finding their legs, and the 1991 Sundance festival included breakthrough films by Richard Linklater (Slacker) and Todd Haynes (Poison).
While those filmmakers went on to great success in both independent and mainstream film, Dash was left, shall we say, in the dust.
"I was the only one who came off of that stage not having another motion-picture movie," remembers Dash, on the phone from Los Angeles. Twenty years after her movie hit Sundance (and went on to have a theatrical run—a first for a female African-American filmmaker—where it grossed more than a million dollars), Dash still hasn't done a big-screen follow-up. "I have done cable movies. But since then, coming off the Sundance stage, I have never gotten a motion-picture deal."
It's true that the New York-born, LA-based Dash, now in her 50s, has been utilizing her filmmaking talents, helming such made-for-pay-TV movies as The Rosa Parks Story, the 2002 biopic in which Angela Bassett starred as the civil-rights heroine. She has even done a few music videos, filming clips for such artists as Tracy Chapman, Peabo Bryson and Tony! Toni! Toné! But Dash says Dust (which would later be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004) gave her a rep as an auteur who specializes in "the cinema of ideas, not words," making the chances of her doing a sophomore feature close to nil.
But Dash has found that she's not the only black female filmmaker struggling. Even though other directors like Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, Talk to Me) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) have several theatrical films under their belts, it's still difficult for a female African-American to show off her versatility behind the camera.
"There are not enough of us—let's say that," she says. "There are not enough of us working. We exist. We're here—they're here. There are just not enough of us working. We need work and would love to have the same opportunities as everyone else has, especially when it comes to telling all kinds of stories. Not just stories about African-Americans, but all kinds of stories.
"I mean, when I was in Senegal, Kasi Lemmons was there too," she remembers. "And, you know, she has a slate of films that she's been writing and she's preparing to do. It's not like we're sitting idle and we don't have anything that we're trying to produce. We're developing and we're writing all the time, you know. We're working on other full projects all the time, all while we're trying to get our films produced."
Not to mention that male black filmmakers have been stealing their thunder as of late. Filmmakers like that unstoppable force of nature Tyler Perry and Precious director Lee Daniels have been making films African-American audiences (specifically, African-American women) flock to, making those directors the go-to guys in Hollywood—not female, black filmmakers—for capturing the lives of black women on screen.
But don't expect Dash to hate the hustle that one-man black-entertainment magnate Perry has achieved.
"Well, he has an audience and he has a voice and he's that voice. He doesn't represent the totality of African-American women and their experiences. He's done his thing, you know. We just need more voices. We just need more balance, that's all."
Nevertheless, Dash is currently going all across the world, doing a lap of screenings and speaking engagements to celebrate Dust's 20th anniversary. She has made visits to China, India, Senegal and, now, Durham, where she will screen the film (along with a short she did that same year called Praise House) this Thursday at Duke University. Looking back, Dash believes that getting a movie made today, especially in this age of digital video filmmaking, would be a lot easier and cheaper. However, the struggle to make one's name with that first low-budget film, a struggle that's been an integral part of her life story, would still be there.
"There's so much pressure for young filmmakers to create a certain type of film," she says. "Everybody's trying to fit into a mold. Everyone's trying to slip into the Hollywood throat. We weren't trying to slip into anywhere, you know. When I got together with [cinematographer] Arthur Jafa and [production designer] Kerry Marshall, we just decided to try to do something extraordinary around African-American culture and experience and, you know, a remote, distant culture that was dying away. That's all we were trying to do.
"And we were definitely not trying to say, 'Hey, Hollywood, this is the way to do it!' No! We were like, 'People, my people, we're doing this and this is a way we can make cinema.' You know, like jazz. We were going for authentic, African-American expressions—visual expressions."
Even as male filmmakers win acclaim for their portraits of African-American women—such as Precious—Julie Dash will continue the struggle, writing screenplays and beating on doors.