Beyonce's Lemonade revives historic film

Beyonce's visual album Lemonade brought to mind Julie Dash's 1991 film, Daughters Of The Dust (above), which has been re-released.
Beyonce's visual album Lemonade brought to mind Julie Dash's 1991 film, Daughters Of The Dust (above), which has been re-released.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

TORONTO • One day in April this year, film-maker Julie Dash got a telephone call from her daughter. "Welcome to the BeyHive," her daughter said. "What are you talking about?" Dash replied.

Beyonce had just dropped her visual album, Lemonade, a luscious tone poem and lover's revenge fantasy featuring prominent black women and girls. In its mood and imagery - women wearing gauzy white gowns, wading through water, perching in a mossy tree - savvy viewers identified a deep influence: Dash's 1991 film, Daughters Of The Dust.

Warmly received and lavishly praised for its beauty and dreamlike narrative, Daughters tells the tale of Gullah women, on the Sea Islands off the south-eastern United States in the early 1900s, who are tugged north by the Great Migration.

It was the first feature film by an African-American woman to have a wide release, an achievement sullied only by the icy reception that Hollywood gave Dash, back then and pretty much ever since.

It took Beyonce (who has not met the film-maker and whose representative could not confirm the film's influence on Lemonade) and her BeyHive of followers to bring Daughters renewed and wider renown, and it came at an auspicious time for Dash.

The movie, which is listed in the National Film Registry, has been digitally restored by its new distributor, the Cohen Film Collection, and received a re-release this month at Manhattan's Film Forum.

But though Dash has spent years approaching Hollywood studios with projects, Daughters remains the only feature film she has been able to make.

"I pitched to every studio out there and every mini-major, from A to Z," the 64-year-old said recently in Toronto, where the film screened to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

She also could not get an agent, even though Daughters drew capacity crowds during its 1992 run at Film Forum, followed by a monthslong engagement at a cinema.

"One agency told me I had no future," she said. "Another company, a mini-major, said it was a fluke."

Some film-makers may have seen in her a cautionary tale; the picture was well-received, yet indie and experimental.

"A lot of people looked at Julie and said, 'I'm not going that way, look at what happened to Julie,'" said Mr Clyde Taylor, a film scholar and African-American cultural historian.

Despite being thwarted in her efforts to make more feature films, Dash has worked steadily, writing a novel and directing television movies, commercials, films for museums and documentaries.

Indeed, with its re-release, Daughters might prove to be still ahead of its time. "In many ways, it's a foreign film," Mr Taylor said. "Maybe it's ahead of its time and time will have to catch up."

The foreign film feel of Daughters was by design. Raised in the Queensbridge Housing Projects in New York, Dash earned a degree in film production at City College and went on to be a fellow at the American Film Institute before beginning a master's degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) film school in the 1970s.

Like other young black filmmakers there, she was impassioned and influenced by avant-garde, Latin-American, African and Russian cinema. Together, the loose collective of students pursued new ways of visual storytelling while resisting commercial pressures.

"Not only was there the tremendous trash phenomenon of Blaxploitation movies, but black filmmakers were also expected to make movies with that kind of junk in it," Mr Taylor said.

The work of UCLA film students such as Dash was a rebuke to all that.

Along with revelling in the film's restoration, re-release and Beyonceborne attention, Dash was recently inducted, to her delight, into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of its efforts to diversify its membership.

She yearns to do more work, her array of story ideas - a mini-series about African-American women serving overseas in World War II, a movie about a family of travelling black magicians - burning brightly in her mind, further ignited by television's broad reach.

But she is still having trouble getting through the door. The agent she eventually ended up with died years ago and, for all her efforts, she said, she has not been able to get another since.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'Beyonce's Lemonade revives historic film'. Subscribe