Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.
Distributors regarded Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) as a foreign film. During her Regis Dialogue at the Walker, she said that many distribution agencies found it to be a compelling film, but they insisted no audiences would be interested in watching it. Despite recognition at the Sundance Film Festival (Arthur Jafa won the Cinematography award for his work), every major and minor distribution company turned it down. Finally Kino International decided to distribute it because the agency thought of it as an international film. Julie Dash liked that idea: “It was a foreign film. It’s so different from mainstream America.” Daughters of the Dust was the first full-length film by an African American woman distributed theatrically.
Daughters of the Dust was first screened at the Walker in March of 1992 during a “New Women’s Cinema” festival organized by the Film/Video department. The festival was meant to celebrate the huge achievements that female directors had recently made with feature productions. It screened the day before the film was to open theatrically at the University Film Society. Daughters of the Dust takes place at the beginning of the 20th century and focuses on people of the Gullah Culture on the Sea Islands. It has two narrators, an unborn baby and a great grandmother, and is about the changing times on an island which was once specifically for slaves. The film exemplifies the diversity of the African American community, voicing the contrasting beliefs of various generations. The stunning visuals allow the audience to experience the beautiful landscape and guide viewers along a story that doesn’t necessarily need words to tell.
When Dash first started the project, she wanted it to be a silent film but knew that audiences would be less than enthusiastic. She decided to have the cast speak in the Gullah dialect to focus on the beautifully composed shots rather than the dialogue. She mentioned later on in her Regis Dialogue that she grew up learning how to translate different dialects like Irish or Italian and she wanted a new dialect to be featured and accepted in film. When she finished the film, she was told to redub the entire film into English, or at least into a southern accent so that audiences could understand it better. She refused. Dash knew she was breaking the rules with this film and that was a conscious decision.
Dash’s first visit to the Walker was in 1993 for a Regis Dialogue titled “American Playhouse.” Dash was an American Playhouse director, a PBS series which brought classic and original drama and fiction to TV audiences. At the Walker, Dash discussed the changing film environment brought on by a growth of African American directors with producer Lyndsay Law. This dialogue was part of the Juneteenth Film Festival: a celebration to honor African American filmmakers. There were multiple events around the Twin Cities that weekend including workshops, screenings and filmmaker forums. This event helped bring the community together to celebrate an underrepresented group of artists.
Dash was a member of the film group LA Rebellion with notable directors like Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima. African American filmmakers who attended UCLA film school during the 70’s and 80’s and who created a new kind of cinema formed this group. Daughters of the Dust was Dash’s 11th film and her first full length feature. It pushed film-goers to consider what stories were commonly told and who was creating those stories.