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A still from the film Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash shows three Black women of different ages leaning on each other, all dressed in white, under an umbrella, they look at peace. They seem to be near a body of water as well.

Observed Online Essays

Greg Tate on Julie Dash

This piece originally appeared in the 2016 BlackStar Film Festival Program Guide, upon Julie Dash receiving a BlackStar Luminary Award.

by Gregory Tate

Still from Daughters of the Dust (1991), dir. Julie Dash.

Of paramount concern in the cinema of Julie Dash is the culture Black women enact between one another in intimate spaces—an isolated Gullah island, a 1940s Hollywood soundstage, an African nunnery, the elegantly fraught pages of their secret diaries.

As with the Black women’s literature that was emerging when she began to make films—particularly that of Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Alice Walker—Dash privileges the dreamspaces and psychic interiors of her female characters: their subjecitivities, their freedom of thought, their circumspect and emancipatory forms of collective expression.

A still from the film Four Women shows a shadowy figure under a blanket, bathed in yellow light and in front of a red wall, only their outline can be made out.
A still from Four Women (1994), dir. by Julie Dash

The core body of Dash’s dramatic work—Four Women, Diary of An African Nun, Illusions, Daughters of the Dust, Love Song—allows us access to a range of highly individuated Black female personae. Figures reckoning with life paths and life crises arc from depression to deliverance, social death to vocal exuberance, violation to liberation, trauma to transcendence. Formally as well, Dash has always been about pushing boundaries and establishing new conceptual plateaus for framing those stories. Like the aforementioned writers and also like such radical Black woman composer-performers as Mary Lou Williams, Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane, Nona Hendryx, Betty Davis, Joan Armatrading, Grace Jones, and Geri Allen. The choreo-cinema form she advanced with Four Women (1974) is still ahead of the curve in terms of deploying abstract visual forms, movement, and lighting to carry a narrative. Dash herself has spoken eloquently about Daughters of the Dust‘s strategic departures from hackneyed representations of antebellum and postbellum Black life. Her narrative esthetic strives to open up the potential for cinema to present a richer embodiment of Black Expressive Being as we know it, feel it, live it, love it:

In the culture we’re not binary, we speak in rhythms and sensibilities, we’re circular. We’re agrarian, we do improvisation, and movement and dance and speech and art and design, and it’s possible to communicate in these ways through cinema too. (Julie Dash, Film Comment, 2016)

In choosing Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s fierce fearless and variegated life as the subject for her forthcoming documentary film, Travel Notes of Geechee Girl, Dash embraces a living icon and mirror of her ideas about cinema—especially as a vital, creative space for projecting Black culture’s very African refusal to compartmentalize its multiplicity of spiritual modalities.