TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1992

LA VÉNUS NÈGRE

Ten years of research, fundraising, and production went into the making of Daughters of the Dust, which later this month will become the first feature-length film written, directed, and produced by an African-American woman, Julie Dash, to enjoy a major theatrical release. The story, set in the Carolina Sea Islands at the turn of the century, focuses on the Gullah people, a group of African-Americans who retained a distinct Africacentric culture during slavery because they were isolated from the Southern mainland. The film’s central theme is the spiritual conflict experienced by one Gullah family when a decision is made to uproot and make tracks for the North to fulfill dreams of progress, industrial opportunity, and modernity.

Dash undertook scrupulous research into Gullah history, language, and spiritual traditions before writing her script, which easily evokes comparisons with the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. In the visual rendering of this period film, Dash, cinematographer and coproducer Arthur Jafa, and production designer Kerry Marshall were specifically concerned with issues of nonstereotypical and nonclichéd representation. “We made an active decision to subordinate market forces to spiritual forces as determining criteria for Daughters,” says Dash. And according to Jafa, “At every point we utilized African-American expressivity as an ordering directive. This meant constructing an alternative universe of visual references and cinematic procedures, one in which black beauty has a self-determining agency. All of the various parameters of the cinematic apparatus were interrogated in an attempt to generate an alien artifact capable of striking particular resonances in a privileged black and female audience.” Here are some of the images Dash, Jafa, and Marshall consulted to build that alternative universe.

Greg Tate

Greg Tate: One black woman critic has reduced Daughters to being a film about “hair.”

Julie Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a real woman. There’s a lot of drama around black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. In other films you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one notices. You have black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen before and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.
—From an interview published in The Village Voice, 4 June 1991

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EULA [picking up her grandmother’s tin can] Do you . . . do you understand . . . who we are, and what we have become? We’re the daughters of those old dusty things Nana carries in her tin can. . . . We carry too many scars from the past. Our past owns us. We wear our scars like armor . . . for protection. Our mother’s scars, our sister’s scars, our daughter’s scars. . . . Thick, hard, ugly scars that no one can pass through to ever hurt us again. Let’s live our lives without living in the fold of old wounds.
—Julie Dash, screenplay for Daughters of the Dust

The very proposition of an authentic black cinema, a cinema as rich in its power and alienation as black music, instills dread and anticipation in the hearts of those who want to consign black creativity to the realm of “freak nigger shit,” as if it were no more the result of profound intellectual activity than the clotting of blood.

Arthur Jafa

Greg Tate is a staff writer for The Village Voice, New York. His book of essays Flyboy in the Buttermilk will be published by Fireside Press, New York, in March. Arthur Jafa is an independent filmmaker who lives in New York.