Julie Dash Talks Filmmaking, Crowdfunding and the Rise of Black Women Directors

Photo Credit: thefilmstage.com

In January 1992, Julie Dash became the first African American woman to have a full-length general theatrical release in the United States with her film "Daughters of the Dust.” “Daughters of the Dust” also won the best cinematography award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and this film was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2004. Dash has also made numerous narrative films, music videos, and television movies including Illusions (1982), Funny Valentines (1999), Incognito (1999), Love Song (2000), The Rosa Parks Story (2002), and Brothers of the Borderland (2004).

Dash is currently working on "Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl," a "documentary feature film that chronicles the remarkable life, multi-faceted career and madcap adventures of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor—Geechee Girl and Citizen of the World." A crowding funding campaign raised over $50,000 for the documentary which is currently in production. Read more about this campaign here.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the pioneer filmmaker. We discussed everything from the beginning of her career to what she's doing now, as well as her thoughts on the newest generation of Black women in film.

-Alexis Jackson
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For Harriet: How did you decide that you wanted to become a filmmaker?

Julie Dash: I started going to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where I learned how to handle 16 mm cameras and how to edit. It was all very new to me. I grew up in New York City but I’d never seen a foreign film before. At the Studio Museum Harlem, a whole new world opened up for me and it became my life.

FH: Since becoming a director you have made well over a dozen films and almost all of them are dedicated to telling the stories of Black women. This is something that we really don't see enough of. When did you decide you wanted to dedicate your career to telling these untold stories?

JD: By the time I got to college I was introduced to Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara. I was like “Oh my gosh! There’s a whole world out there that I didn’t know about that had been speaking to me!” But the problem was, I knew these people, but I had never seen them in film or on television. I wanted to see films like the stories that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker were writing. So that’s why I became a filmmaker.

At school I was majoring in psychology but I switched to film production. It was easy to get into since this was the 70s. I switched over and I graduated with a BA in film production. I relocated to Los Angeles from CCNY and I spent two years at the American Film Institute as a writing and producing fellow. After two years there I went to UCLA for four years to get my MFA in film and television production. And all the while I was making films.

FH: You’ve been in the film industry for quite some time. Have you seen it change in regards to Black women in both representation on film and behind the scenes?

JD: In many ways it has changed greatly but in many ways it has not. I think it’s a constant evolution. But what most people don’t know is, there have been Black women filmmakers before my time. Way back in the 1920s there were Black women making films. Granted, there weren’t a whole lot of us but throughout history we have always been apart of the conversation. What happened was, we did not have distribution. Therefore the films made by Jessie Maple and others didn’t get general distribution. But when “Daughters of the Dust” came out in 1992 it got a wide general distribution.

FH: Wow, I didn't know that. What do you think allowed “Daughters of the Dust” to get the distribution that other films made by Black women weren’t getting?
JD: Timing. It was a time when there were many films made by Black filmmakers that were getting attention. And of course Spike’s success with “She’s Gotta Have It.” It opened doors for everyone. “Straight Out of Brooklyn” came out the same year. It was an exciting time.

FH: So fast-forward to now, you recently completed a crowd funding campaign for your upcoming film “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.” What made you decide to take this route instead of traditional funding?

JD: Crowd funding is a wonderful thing! I participate with crowd funding for many reason. Not only for my own film, but for helping to fund other independent filmmakers, black and white. I’m very much someone who has always supported independent filmmakers because they are an independent voice and independent voices so often go unseen and unheard.

FH: That's very true and very important. Like “Daughters of the Dust,” “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” deeply explores the Gullah and Geechee culture, what inspired you to return to this after over 20 years?

JD: “Daughters of the Dust” was about the Gullah Geechee people, but I’ve also done “Love Song” with Monica and Tyrese. I’ve done “Funny Valentines” with Alfre Woodard and “The Rosa Parks Story” with Angela Bassett. So I do all kinds of films and “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” is just an extension in many ways of “Daughters of the Dust.” Vertamae Grosvenor was a consultant on “Daughter’s of the Dust” and she became a good friend. But it’s really only my second look at the Gullah Geechee culture.

FH: You come from a family from the coastal region of South Carolina just like Vertamae Grosvenor, how has studying and learning more about the Gullah Geechee culture aided you personally and as a filmmaker since you have such deep roots in this culture?

JD: Learning about my Gullah Geechee roots gave me confidence and inspiration, because we can celebrate a tradition that for so many years has been considered derogatory. It put me in touch with my West African heritage. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to make connections between the ancient, the present, and the future.

FH: It is wonderful and that's exactly what you're doing with “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.” What do you hope audiences will take a way from this film?

JD: No matter where you come from, no matter what your background is, you’re a citizen of the world. Get your passport, pack a light bag, travel, meet people, and join the global conversation. And that’s what Vertamae Grosvenor did. When I first met her I had no idea that at 16 or 17 she packed her bags and moved to Europe. I had no idea that she had traveled the world before coming back to the Untied States and being apart of the Black Arts movement. It is incumbent upon everyone to travel. To cross boundaries and borders and to leave your comfort level and join the global conversation.

“Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” also shows how Vertamae Grosvenor challenged the standard of beauty as a 6-foot-tall Geechee girl with dark skin, a flat nose, and full lips. We don’t even see women like her depicted in television shows today, except for Viola Davis! And that’s why I love Shonda Rhimes so much. She gives us what we’ve been missing and what we’ve been longing for with "Scandal" and "How to Get Away with Murder."

FH: Black women are becoming somewhat more visible in the roles of producers and directors. Ava DuVernay has seen much success with Selma in the past year. I wanted to know your thoughts on her success and how she has been able to get into the industry and open up the doors for Black women.

JD: So true. We’re all very proud of Ava and I love her too death as a personal friend and as an artist. I’ve been very much aware of her career from the time she was a publicist and until now. I mean this lady is a perfect storm. She has a wonderful personality and she’s just so confident in every endeavor that she jumps into. So I just love her to death, she’s very talented.

I also think Dee Rees is so talented. Watching her work is so fulfilling. It takes me back to the early days when I decided to that I was going to do films that focused on the culture of African American women. Now back in the day people would say “Why are you limiting yourself?” And I would say “Limiting?” We don’t have stories about the women who raised and nurtured us, who carried us over and who gave us strength and inspiration. We didn't have those stories but now we do. We are staring to see them with Shonda Rhimes, Dee Rees, and Ava DuVernay. So I’m very happy. I’m a happy camper.

FH: People seem to be more open now about seeing these stories told. How what was it like for you when you wanted to tell these stories 20 years ago?

JD: Everyone had a great idea of what I should do. I did an adaptation of an Alice Walker story while I was at UCLA and everyone was like “Why are you doing this?” They wanted me to do something urban. But guess what? I grew up in an urban environment. I know these stories but I’m looking for something else, I want to see more. I want to see our faces in the world doing everything single thing that other people are doing. I want that privilege too. Not only for myself and my family, but for the young filmmakers who come behind me. Why can't we be in science fiction? Why can't we have our own "Game of Thrones?" I want us to be apart of that. We don’t get a chance to direct that? Fine. But can we have those stories depicted on the screen? It's not that we aren’t writing them, its that we aren’t being financed.

FH: That’s why crowd funding is so important for black filmmakers.

JD: Exactly.

FH: And its so exciting to hear about Ava DuVernay and the new Marvel film.

JD: Yes! That's so important for many reasons. She gets to immerse herself in the action and super hero of genre. She’ll be able to work with a larger budget than I think any other African Americans have had to date. And just the fact that we’re going to see how an African American woman sees this story unfold. It’s a win win for everyone.

FH: Yes, I’m so excited to see what she will do with that movie! But what’s next for you after you finish with “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl?”

JD: I’ve been pitching about the 6888 Postal Battalion. Its about the 850 African America women who served overseas during WWII and based upon the book, One Woman’s Army, by Charity Adams Earley. She was 24-years-old when she became a Major and she was in charge of the women who went overseas. It’s just a fascinating story with a real colorful cast of characters.

FH: We will definitely be on the look out for that and “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”

View the trailer for Julie Dash's upcoming film, "Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl" below.

Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl: Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor Documentary from Julie Dash on Vimeo.

Alexis Jackson is a visual artist, writer, and editorial assistant at For Harriet. You can follow her on twitter @_alexisjacks.