Filmmaker Julie Dash comes across as accessible, unassuming, and generous with her time and attention. She does not seem to make a fuss about her groundbreaking role as a female African American independent film director.
I had the chance to meet her at The New School's celebration of the 20th anniversary of her movie, Daughters of The Dust. In 1990, this critically acclaimed film won the award for Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, and made history again when it was released two years later through an innovative distribution model, devised by Kino International and KJM3 Entertainment Group, which engaged African-American communities in direct and dynamic ways.
In 1998, as I was working in the U.S. as a food critic for the Italian food and wine magazine Gambero Ross, somebody advised me that I should watch Daughters of the Dust. And I did. The movie had a profound influence of me, as I was starting to report on the American culinary traditions, opening my eyes to a new layer of American food history. Coming from Europe, I was aware of the innovative restaurant scene in cities like New York or Chicago. However, movies and media portrayed the majority of Americans as living on a diet of mass-produced hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and steaks.
Daughters of the Dust changed my perception. The action takes place in a single day in 1902, when a family of Gullahs, the Afro-American population of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, decides to leave their ancestral homes to move to the mainland, embracing modernity and progress. As the family gathers, women prepare a festive meal that showcases the gastronomic bounty of the islands: crabs, shrimp, and clams are cooked with corn, tomatoes, okra, and all sorts of vegetables. Nothing could be more different from the foodways that other mainstream movies usually illustrate. Suddenly, the complexity and richness of American food traditions became clear to me, and guided me in my work as a food journalist in the following years. Through my journalistic work I have traveled to the Sea Islands, and also explored the other unique regional culinary treasures of Creole cuisine, of southern barbecue, of New England seafood. I realized that these traditions might not survive forever, or maybe they will continue to exist as heritage, a status that protects them but also has the potential to prevent them from developing.
Julie Dash's masterpiece cannot be considered a "food movie" per se. It does not embrace the "food porn" aesthetics that tend to identify the genre: a sensual approach to eating, extreme close-ups of all things edible, amplified cooking sounds, as well as visual prevalence of glistening textures and refined cooking skills. Daughters of the Dust shows food and the people preparing it in a very straightforward manner. At the same time, however, the emotional intensity and the poetry of the images makes us reflect on how the culinary traditions represented in the movie survived the Middle Passage, the horrors of the slaves' exploitation in the rice and indigo plantations, the crisis of the Civil War, and the confusion of the Reconstruction. Fragments of the past emerge in the name of crops: "okra is gumbo, and peanut is guba," an older woman tries to teach a group of young children. The Gullah food customs are also starkly different from those now known as "soul food," a wide definition that includes various African-American foodways but that is also supposed to fully represent them all.
With Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash managed to highlight the diversity within the African-American experience. She did so by giving voice and agency to a group that had become invisible. The question of who controls the images and representations of people of color is still urgent, and not only in the realm of food. My Image Studios (MIST), a $21 million dollar entertainment center will open this summer in Harlem, providing a space of discussion about these issues. The independent marketing and distribution company, Autonomous Entertainment, and the annually curated film series celebrating realistic portrayals of people of color, Creatively Speaking, will partner with MIST to define the movie program. The importance of centers like MIST for the African and Latino Diaspora cannot be overstated. Other independent filmmakers will hopefully find a home for their work, empowered to show aspects of their communities that might have been overlooked or ignored by the mainstream media.