The subject of a sprawling retrospective at the UCLA Film Archive in 2011, Julie Dash was a driving force in the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers, which is more fashionably called the L.A. Rebellion. In what has been a historic career, Dash has coped with the difficulties of making personal, non-industrial films. Like so many black filmmakers, her work has often been complicated and compromised by the exigencies of a media marketplace that rarely caters to the complexities of African American life. At 59, the Long Island City native is best known for her 1991 feature, Daughters of the Dust, a meditative and unabashedly elliptical film that centers of three generations of black women near the turn of the century as their family migrates from the Sea Island off the coast of South Carolina to the mainland. That film, financed in part by the last vestiges of major public financing for films in the States, was a critical success, but had very little life commercially. Since then, Dash has made a steady living directing television films such as Incognito (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002).
When we spoke last year, Dash was soon to begin work on Tupelo 77, an indie drama set amongst the mostly female denizens of a roadside diner in Mississippi during the summer of 1977. I caught up with Dash to discuss her career, especially its fascinating start as part of the group that forged its own sub-genre, and her contemporary struggles raising financing and working on her own terms in a system that regards work like hers with suspicion at best and disinterest at worst.
Keyframe: What do you think about the term L.A. Rebellion as a catch-all for the black filmmakers that were coming out of UCLA in the 1970s?
Julie Dash: You know, there’s something from reconstruction, [laughs] the rebellion, you know, get your shrapnels and pitchforks together, and we’re going to rebel.
Keyframe: Right, like you’re driving the Carpetbaggers out of the South, or something.
Dash: Yeah, right, but I like it now. [Laughs.]
Keyframe: It’s grown on you.
Dash: I settled in, and I like it now. Thank you, Clyde. [Laughs.]
Keyframe: So tell me a little bit about what drew you to UCLA’s film program to begin with.
Dash: I started out in film in New York City. I was born and raised there, and while I was also attending school in Harlem—making small films, newsreels and documentaries—I read a pamphlet or flyer about filmmakers who were working in California. Among them were Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, and they were making narrative films. I didn’t know how to make narrative film. I was working on short documentary things. So I was intrigued. My undergraduate major was in film production, but we didn’t really focus on narrative at that time; it was more experimental and documentary. So I decided I was going to go to graduate school at UCLA. I didn’t get in the first round, but went to AFI, the American Film Institute, instead, where I studied directing and writing. AFI is where I met Larry Clark and Charles Burnett and Haile, who was just about to leave. I did get a chance to work on one of Larry Clark’s films.
We were trying to make authentic African American films; that foundation pretty much remains in each film. There was never any fear of trying to speak with an original voice.
Keyframe: You did the serve as recorder for Passing Through, right?
Dash: Yeah? [Laughs.]
Keyframe: He was telling me about that the either day, actually.
Dash: He did? [Laughs.] That’s so funny… In the heat. I was new to California at that time, had just relocated and it was hot. It was in the desert, it was great. It was wonderful, we met up with a number of local filmmakers, and we lived and died making films. Not live to die, but lived to die for making films—that’s all we wanted to do, and that’s what we did. So after I completed two years of study at AFI, I still wanted to have more autonomy, because AFI’s time there was gearing us to being more television directors. So I applied to UCLA, got in, and I started going to UCLA. By that time Haile was gone, but Billy Woodberry was there—he was one of my TA’s….
Keyframe: Billy Woodberry?
Dash: Yeah, he was the TA for our class, and Larry was just finishing up Passing Through.
Keyframe: So was that the first project you worked on at UCLA?
Dash: I actually worked on Passing Through before I got to UCLA, I was at AFI. I would drive over, and say ‘Oh man, you have more sound stages, more equipment, you have this and that!’ At that time the AFI was a conservatory, it was not a big MFA program, and there were only 18 of us. It was very small, very intimate, very intense. We’d spend ten hours a day there. I didn’t get to make a film at AFI because everything had to be—it was like a studio system. You had to go through, get writing approval, and I ended up writing nearly everything I made at UCLA while I was at AFI, including the beginning of Daughters and Illusions. All of those things were writing projects I had had at AFI. So once I got into UCLA, I was able to do it, the film projects, which was great [to] have a whole cadre of people around you and with and want to help you, and enhance your ideas and get your films made.
Keyframe: I know a lot of the other filmmakers I’ve talked to who told me that at the time a lot of the dialogue going on between all of you was an epistemological type conversation about what was Black Cinema, as opposed to any other type of cinema. Larry was cracking me up because we never came up with an answer, but we had some good arguments.
I read a pamphlet or flyer about filmmakers who were working in California. Among them were Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, and they were making narrative films. I didn’t know how to make narrative film. I was working on short documentary things. So I was intrigued.
Dash: [Laughs.] You know, we were trying to make authentic African American films, that foundation pretty much remains in each film. There was never any fear of trying to make something that would raise the bar or speaking with an original voice. I know we were not trained to kind of roll into the Hollywood system at all…that was never our intention. It was to make films. Because there we were able to study neorealism and the French New Wave and all of the different classic films as well as the types of films made all over the world. We were thinking more global, but at the same time global about how our community was in that whole global perspective. So we were not doing soap operas!
Keyframe: [Laughs.] You were leaving that to like Bill Gunn out in New York—he was making the black avant-garde soap operas, while you all were making hard art cinema in a lot of ways.
Dash: I was able to meet him once at UCLA when he came out—I think his intention was to be more experimental. In fact, in one of my films, in Daughters of the Dust, I pay homage to Bill Gunn with the scene that I shot, the way I composed the scene with these women in the tree, and one woman’s leg is hanging and swinging.
Keyframe: You made two featurettes at UCLA, Diary of an African Nun, as well as…
Dash: Yeah, that was a short that I made that was an adaptation of a short story by Alice Walker of the same name. It was heavily influenced by Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Judith Butler. There were so many of them I can’t remember.
Keyframe: Because there was so much collaboration going on— we talked about you working on Larry Clark’s film, Charles Burnett shot Bill Woodberry’s film Bless Your Little Hearts (which gets me every time, such a great movie) and Bush Mama for Haile, was it one of those situations where you were working for other filmmakers hoping to cultivate those favors and relationships to work on your films? Do you think you all pushed each other?
We were not trained to kind of roll into the Hollywood system at all…that was never our intention. It was to make films. We were able to study neorealism and the French New Wave … as well as the types of films made all over the world. We were thinking more global….We were not doing soap operas!
Dash: Yeah, I worked with Barbara McCullough, Sharon Larkin…Charles Burnett would come every day after work and sit with me while I was editing Illusions. We were best of friends, and I would run my ideas by him, and he would say, ‘What?’ [Laughs.] So yeah.
Keyframe: It’s so fascinating that nearly all of you were making features at the time for next to no money, and as you’ve become mature filmmakers, to a man and a woman, like so many African American filmmakers you’ve struggled to find financing, you’ve struggled to find audiences within our own community….
Dash: Yes, I pretty much got into the ‘Movie of the Week’ business for a long, long time, which of course was Funny Valentines, Love Song, The Rosa Parks Story, Incognito, so I’ve done long form features, but they were made for television.
Keyframe: I saw The Rosa Parks film: Do you feel like the African American community as a whole doesn’t support its own artists and the filmmaking that represents its full breadth?
Dash: I think they do, I think the African American certainly does support the films that we made and we are making, they just support them in a different way that doesn’t necessarily correlate to box office, which the studio system requires to keep it in a theater.
Keyframe: I came across this statistic when I was studying a lot of your films in college: that four out of five ticket buyers for Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger were white.
Dash: It’s so funny to hear that.
Keyframe: You made a wonderful film [in Daughers of the Dust] that has stood the test of time…. The film has had a tremendous life, regardless of whether or not it’s been embraced by the Hollywood studio system.
Dash: I think it’s a shining example of what can happen even though it’s not embraced by the studio system. In 2009 we were over in Taiwan, they did a whole retrospective of my work in Taipei. They’ve been doing it all around the world, we have another one coming up in Spain… and the fact that it was inducted in the National Film Registry—I love that!
Keyframe: Well, I’ll do my best to spread the word about upcoming events.
Dash: Yeah, you have to take it all in perspective. […] Success is what they say is a success, you can make any film a blockbuster if you put 20 million dollars behind it for promotion and marketing and have prints available—we know that! So it’s not personal, it’s marketing, it’s show business, you know? And this was the life we chose, and we want to take this road, and I embrace that. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more long form theatrical, and still turn around and do a museum piece. I mean, that’s great! I’m an old-school filmmaker, I like to make movies, I like to tell stories.
Brandon Harris is a filmmaker, critic, and contributing editor to Filmmaker Magazine.