An Interview with Julie Dash - Believer Magazine
header-image

An Interview with Julie Dash

Filmmaker

“History is all there: I just dig it up, unearth it, make it available.”

header-image

An Interview with Julie Dash

Filmmaker

“History is all there: I just dig it up, unearth it, make it available.”

An Interview with Julie Dash

Carina del Valle Schorske
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

I spoke with the legendary director Julie Dash by phone in March 2020, during her spring break from teaching at Spelman College, when both of us were staying home after events we’d planned to travel for were canceled. We were just cresting the wave of coronavirus rumors, a breath before the devastating flood of the global pandemic. I’d forgotten—since I so rarely speak on the phone—how the human voice, keenly heeded, archives its own history: Dash, sixty-eight, grew up in the Queensbridge projects in Long Island City (where Nas was raised too), and her voice is warm and forceful, full of New York music. But there are other musics layered underneath. Every summer when she was young, Dash would visit her father’s family in Charleston, South Carolina, and hear relatives speaking Gullah dialects without knowing that was what she was hearing. “Nobody explained it to me,” she said. “I found out on my own.”

Dash has a genius for research, and for her, confusion is not an impediment but a productive point of departure, a spiritual practice, and a source of creative excitement. In an early interview, she rhapsodized about her first adolescent encounter with film cameras, in a workshop for high school students at the Studio Museum in Harlem: “All this equipment, and I was allowed to touch it, play with it, and be confused by it—and then make the decision to master it.” Dash would continue to explore new territory, from the documentary techniques that dominated New York filmmaking in the ’70s to the narrative and lyrical techniques she learned at the American Film Institute, in communion with Russian montagists, Third World Cinema filmmakers, and her peers in the movement that came to be known as the LA Rebellion. 

Dash’s early short films testify to the restless range of her imagination: Four Women (1975) is a choreopoem set to Nina Simone’s melancholic ode of the same name; Diary of an African Nun (1977) is an adaptation of Alice Walker’s short story about a woman wrestling with colonial religion; and Illusions (1982) tells the story of a white-passing Black professional attempting a Hollywood career behind the camera in the 1940s. Each film seems to follow the form of the protagonist’s psyche.

Daughters of the Dust (1991), Julie Dash’s first and only theatrical feature film to date, also seems to unfold like a dream from the minds of the women who populate it. The film’s immersive intensity is evidence of the mastery she acquired in her medium through her willingness to be guided by the unknown. In Daughters, multiple generations of the Gullah-Geechee Peazant family are poised on the brink of the Great Migration, arguing about what to keep and what to leave behind from their complex syncretic culture. Dash’s long takes show how history is made through the mundane rapture of repetition—ring dances on the shoreline and green wheels of okra sliced into a cooking pot.

Daughters of the Dust made Julie Dash the first Black American woman director to have a general theatrical release in the United States, and in 2004, Daughters was included in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. In 2016, the Cohen Media Group restored and released a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of the film to wide acclaim, allowing new audiences to make the connection between Daughters and the swampy lyricism of Beyoncé’s Black womanist utopias in Lemonade. Like the Unborn Child that narrates the film, Daughters teaches us a new relationship to legacy: a dream of the future, disguised as a ghost of the past. If Dash has supreme patience for what she doesn’t yet know, she is rightly less patient with an industry, and a public, that can’t see the value in being decentered: racially, historically, or aesthetically.

After many years directing music videos and commercials, Dash helmed features for television, including Incognito (1999), Funny Valentines (1999), Love Song (2000), and The Rosa Parks Story (2002). Presently, she is at work on a much-anticipated biopic of Angela Davis, forthcoming from Lionsgate. But even when working to represent iconic figures like Davis or Rosa Parks, Dash is always alive to what remains misunderstood, cryptic, and hidden in plain sight about the lives of Black women. This conversation finds her back at the library, schooling us in the finer points of decolonial communism, and listening hard for the low tones in rap ciphers and the walkie-talkies of Navajo code talkers. 

—Carina del Valle Schorske 

I. NO EXPLANATION NECESSARY

THE BELIEVER: I once heard Stephanie Smallwood say she views Toni Morrison as a colleague, a fellow historian of slavery. I notice that at the end of your short film Illusions, Mignon, your protagonist, says: “Your scissors and your paste methods have eliminated my participation in the history of this country, and the influence of that screen cannot be overestimated!” As a filmmaker who’s worked on a number of so-called “period pieces,” from Illusions through The Rosa Parks Story, how do you view your own position in relation to historians? 

JULIE DASH: When I think about it, I don’t have an original thought within me. History is all there: I just dig it up, unearth it, make it available. It’s in the books; it’s in the journals and oral histories from primary sources. It’s in the film clips from the turpentine camps in Zora Neale Hurston’s early quote-unquote “documentary films.” It’s all there: everything that’s in Illusions and also in Daughters. I followed the bread crumbs and made those stories visual from the point of view of a Black woman. 

BLVR: You’ve said you might’ve been interested in working as an anthropologist if you hadn’t gotten involved in filmmaking. 

JD: Yes. Absolutely. That interest comes from combining research with the ethnographic films we had to make at UCLA. And then it just starts merging. I learned that Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist alongside Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas—Boas was their teacher, you know—so I was like, Oh, man, this is interesting. Research is cheaper than film: you could spend years in the library! I still love the library. I was so sad when they moved the UCLA research materials off campus. You have to put in an order for a book, you know: send it over in two days. I like just browsing the stacks. You never know what you’re going to find. 

BLVR: There’s an improvisational element that you can’t take away, really. 

JD: Right? And that’s how I found out about the Wanderer.There was an ancient catalog of late-nineteenth-century magazines from New York, and that’s where I got that little snippet from [for Daughters of the Dust], because, of course, all of this was before Google. That’s why we hung out in the libraries. 

And there was a secret underground service run by research librarians—I believe it was called Hoot Owl. I believe it may have been in San Francisco or something like that. You know, that was during the early days of the internet, and the Whole Earth Catalog—it was this big book that had everything you could think of. 

I don’t remember where I got the number [for Hoot Owl] from, but I remember being told: “Do not abuse it. You will thank them. And you will not call with every little question in the world.”How did I remember that? I mean, this is from the ’70s, the Hoot Owl number! 

BLVR: Both Hoot Owl and the Whole Earth Catalog seem to have a mystical quality—the sacredness of knowledge. 

JD: Exactly. It was like some secret-society thing. 

BLVR: Well, it’s important to archive all of this—the changes in research methods. I’ve been thinking about your novel sequel to Daughters of the Dust. Your protagonist, Amelia, is working toward her degree in anthropology and returns to her mother’s
home island to conduct fieldwork. 

JD: Funny you should mention that novel, because I just decided that if I could ever find my book contracts—I think they’re in storage in Los Angeles—I’d like to have it made into an audiobook. I’ve been listening to Toni Morrison’s audiobooks at night to help me go to sleep. 

BLVR: The ultimate human music. 

JD: Exactly. It’s her voice and it just lulls you to sleep. I’m listening to Song of Solomon, and she’s talking about Milkman and Guitar. I read those books so long ago, I didn’t realize how great they were. 

BLVR: The density of her novels reminds me of the density of Daughters, how any given shot is so layered. You’re going to catch—and miss—something new every time. 

JD: I mean, it’s all fresh and new, even with the re-read, because I’m a whole different person. 

BLVR: Back to Amelia: It’s hard for me not to see her as a kind of alter ego for you. First of all, she’s a New Yorker and she’s got her little camera… 

JD: I thought you were going to say— 

BLVR: That Amelia is Zora? 

JD: Yeah, that’s why it’s set during the Harlem Renaissance—but it doesn’t take place in Harlem. We had to find out the real details, like who had fellowships back then? Where could you study anthropology? OK, Brooklyn College—so actually, the Amelia character was reversed-engineered to be like Zora Neale Hurston, and then I had to find out what kind of camera she would have had. But you’re right: I’m in there, too, with my own Gullah-Geechee thing. Because we’d go down there [to Charleston], and if we asked our family a direct question, we wouldn’t get an answer—we’d get a long story that maybe had something to do with the answer. Everything was hidden. Camouflaged. But that’s because they were indoctrinated not to explain stuff—or speak in the Gullah dialect—because they were considered the lowest of the low. I don’t know if you know this or not, but the little girl who played the Unborn Child in Daughters of the Dust? I didn’t use her voice to narrate the character, because her mother had told her: “Never let anyone hear your dialect.” And so she had the perfect look, but she would not speak to me out loud. You know the other little girl in the film, with the hairstyle that we call “trees”? Who’s on the beach all the time? We brought her up to Atlanta to do the final narration. She had the Gullah dialect and was not ashamed to speak it. 

BLVR: That’s heavy. That’s like the reverse plot of Illusions, where Esther, a Black performer, is hired to sing for the white actress on-screen in a musical number. 

JD: Yes. 

BLVR: Beyond your own novel, I know you’ve always looked to literature for inspiration, even when you’re not directly adapting something like Alice Walker’s short story “Diary of an African Nun,” which you did in 1977. You were just talking about Morrison. I’m curious to know what Black women writers, especially of your generation, have taught you, and what you’ve taken into your work from those sources. 

JD: OK. So what I learned from writers like Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker is that there’s an audience for writing from your heart. Some things don’t have to be explained, because we already know them. And that flies directly in the face of the advice you get when you’re writing for commercial films. Because people are so used to being spoon-fed: you have to explain every single thing to them, otherwise they’re angry. And my response to that has always been: Well, you have five hundred different television stations. Just go watch television, where you know what’s gonna happen before the opening credits are rolling. You can tell what’s going to happen by the music.

I love the work of those ladies because I love foreign films. I like to have a new experience. Like when I was at the Studio Museum in Harlem early on, watching, you know, the films of [François] Truffaut, [Yasujirō] Ozu, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray, I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. I had to keep my eyes on the screen and keep reading the subtitles, and go, like, Oh, I get it. Ohhhhh. And it was a real complete experience, as opposed to going into the theater, watching a commercial film, sitting there, and by the time you’re in the parking lot looking for your car, you can’t remember what the film was about. 

BLVR: Before you moved to LA, I know you started out making documentaries in New York, but got frustrated with the form because your family never wanted to come downtown to your screenings unless it was a narrative feature. What do you think your family was hungry for that documentaries couldn’t or weren’t offering them? 

JD: Well, they were more familiar with the “voice of God” type of documentary: And here we have the river, and it flows… you know? The form wasn’t allowing people to speak for themselves. Documentaries are so compelling now. I mean, they’re really meshing with dramas, the way they’re being edited. 

BLVR: You’ve cited the Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez—who had a syncretic approach to documentary and narrative techniques—as an early influence. 

JD: Do you know what’s so interesting? I saw Sara’s face, and I saw stills from her productions. I read about her, and then the next thing I knew she was deceased. But that was before DVDs and YouTube. If you wanted to see someone’s film, you had to see it projected on 16 millimeter, or 35 millimeter. So I just saw stills from her productions, and photographs of her directing, behind the camera. I remember she had a short-cropped Afro and big eyes and I just was like: Oh my god, she’s directing movies! That was enough for me. She was my inspiration when I was at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and early on at UCLA: We knew she existed. Therefore, I could exist. She mattered so much. I didn’t get to see her films until maybe thirty years later, and the Spanish was not subtitled yet. I saw a pirated version of De cierta manera.I think someone else finished editing it for her. I am not sure what she died of. It wasn’t, like, diabetes— 

BLVR: It was asthma. 

JD: Asthma? 

BLVR: Yeah, she had a fatal asthma attack. Pretty tragic and probably preventable. 

JD: Yes. That’s something. 

II. SOLAR POWER, DEATH RAYS, AND FAX MACHINES

BLVR: Now that there are multiple generations of Black filmmakers at work in the industry, I’m wondering what the opportunities for exchanges with younger filmmakers have meant for you. 

JD: Well, they have their own voices. As artists, we want to, say, reimagine, or redefine something. So the younger filmmakers have their particular things they want to speak to, and we have ours, and that doesn’t mean there’s a conflict between us. Nothing is in conflict at all. I know a lot of them are looking at Afrofuturism. I was being interviewed by a young documentary filmmaker, and she asked me if I had heard about it. I said: “Well, actually, Daughters of the Dust is an Afrofuturist film.” And she said, “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” I said, “Yeah, like the Unborn Child comes forward as a character from her mother’s womb.” That’s speculative fiction. 

BLVR: And it’s the technology too. Mr. Snead comes with all these newfangled portable cameras that seem to become ritual objects in the Sea Island context, capable of perceiving unseen futures— 

JD: Yes! And the kaleidoscope he brings… So these are conversations that we need to continue having. Afrofuturism is not the word. The phrase might be something new, but the exploration has been going on since the 1930s with the solar power and death rays and fax machines in George Schuyler’s novel Black Empire, his satire of Marcus Garvey’s movement. 

BLVR: Even Du Bois has Afrofuturist writing, like his short story “The Comet,” from the early twentieth century. 

JD: Some new issues are front and center now. Identity has always been up front, you know. But LGBTQ issues, and sexual harassment with #MeToo—all of that is very now. Whereas for us, it was more about the diaspora, you know, being connected, being part of a continuum of activity—of music and science and everything that came about in the African diaspora. Less about the individual, less about the self, and more about collective memories, collective history. I’m not saying one is better than the other. It’s just the way it panned out. 

BLVR: Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, I do see Moonlight as a very diasporic and collective film, even though it’s also putting a queer love story at the center. Like, there’s that amazing moment at the beginning when Little is sitting with Juan at the beach and Little asks Juan where he’s from. And he says, “Cuba,” and the kid looks really surprised. And Juan says: “There are Black people everywhere.” 

JD: Yeah. Moonlight was amazing on so many levels because it had to do with the Caribbean diaspora; it had to do with cooking as healing, with having a meal together; it had to do with just… Black love—Black male love; and it had to do with overcoming. And so many things didn’t turn out the way they normally do in films like that. I was watching it at the London Film Festival, and I was on the edge of my seat, because I was saying, Oh god, is there going to be a drone hit on the two of them in the restaurant? I mean, usually with Hollywood films, queer Black love just doesn’t end well. And when the drone hit never came, I was very pleased. I was so pleased that I was actually stunned, sitting in my seat. I was like: I’m emotionally worn-out. 

BLVR: I want to ask you a few questions about technique and process. I once heard you say you fell in love with film more for the mechanics than the art of it, at first. Is it still a tactile thrill to work with film now that the tools have changed and so much of filmmaking is digital? 

JD: It’s not quite the same. It started to change once I became a member of DGA, the Director’s Guild [of America]: then I could no longer edit my films; I had to use a union editor. So I retreated from that, and now it’s more about the writing and creating and reimagining and reframing, but still… you’re absolutely right. It was the tactile that drew me in. You know, I was in high school and we were in competition with boys all the time—and the boys was all, “You can’t load this camera, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” And it was like, “Ohhh, let me show you how I can.” 

I’m teaching now. I have a chaired position at Spelman College, and so I’m able to express my mechanical imagination through my class, focusing on the composition of the frame—constantly going over imagery and lighting and stuff like that. I do miss having filmstrips around my neck, editing. But I love the fact that now you can have so many alternate edits of your work—I mean, that cannot be denied. We’re using Premiere Pro. Editing with digital files is faster, better, cleaner, less expensive, all of that. But slicing film together—that was something else, man. You know, we had marks on our arms all the time from the Rivas 35 millimeter splicer. We were all cut up because of the single-edge razor attached to it. 

BLVR: When you’re first starting to kind of get your head in a film, is there an element of it that usually comes first for you? Like a color palette, or… 

JD: I read the script to see if it’s resonating with me. I go back and read it again and start visualizing things, and then I start creating look-books or decks, inspiration boards, which also may include a color palette. But I want to be fluid with it because it’s one thing to create something on your desktop and then, on location, it just doesn’t work. You have to be willing to adjust. I’m pulling images from all over the world for my decks. I don’t know how I’m going to use the images or even if I’m going to use them, but it’s something to start from. 

BLVR: So it starts sort of as an associative collage. 

JD: You have the right words for it. Yeah, associative collage. 

BLVR: You’ve talked before about being guided by a womanist vision in your filmmaking. And I’m wondering if you’ve thought kind of explicitly about what defines a womanist aesthetic for you in terms of style and sensibility. 

JD: Well, I know for sure that people have said that in Daughters—in most of my films—I have a different type of gaze for Black people, for Black women and children. In most films, they do not go as close up as I go with the camera: for example, braiding women’s hair. I don’t pull away. I go closer because I’m used to seeing that, so I’m not doing the National Geographic thing—shooting those people from a distance. And there are other subtle elements that are just always there that I want to show. Composing shots and building scenes for the visual language of film is kind of like writing poetry with images: you want to be able to say something using the words that everyone knows, but the phrasing is different. 

III. COME BY HERE

BLVR: Can you talk about some of the projects you have going on right now? 

JD: Absolutely. I have my documentary that I’ve been working on, and I can’t wait till school is out so I can finish shooting it. The film’s about Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor—Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. She was a culinary anthropologist. 

BLVR: It seems like she did a whole range of things in her life: that’s what it’s like when you have to keep moving and trying different industries that may or may not be ready for your work. You have to be creative about how you express yourself. 

JD: Yeah, she lived the artist’s life. She knew just about everyone: from Jackie Onassis to Larry Neal, playwrights and politicians—there’s a picture of her in Jimmy Carter’s Oval Office. Just unbelievable. But that’s the life of a culinary anthropologist who’s also a chef, you know, so she would cook for various people and they would introduce her to others: we have footage of her in the kitchen at Muhammad Ali’s training camp. David Bowie, she knew. We connected on Daughters of the Dust when I asked her to be in it, because I knew she was from the region and she spoke the Gullah language. And she just reminded me of a relative, but a relative that would finally tell the truth about what went on in Gullah-Geechee culture. Then I’d take the information back to my own family and they’d say, “Oh yeah, we know that.” Well, why didn’t you tell me? My grandmother would say something to me in Gullah, and I’d be like, “Say what?” And then she’d just wave her hand at me like, You don’t get it. It was all a big tease. 

BLVR: Can you understand Gullah better now? 

JD: There’s several layers to it. I can understand someone with a heavy Gullah-Geechee accent, but when they go right into it, it sounds like complete non-English, like Nigerian. When we were down there shooting on Saint Helena Island, the actors mentioned it too: they would go into a 7-Eleven and maybe there’d be two guys talking at the counter and they saw we weren’t from the region by the way our eyes would glaze over. Then they’d switch up. Code switching. Everything is camouflaged—it’s a survival technique. 

BLVR: That reminds me of the way some people have responded to Daughters of the Dust—like you have a film dialect they can’t understand. Of course, not all your films have that same opacity. I’m wondering how you carry that love or interest in opacity to other projects that are more straightforward in a narrative sense. 

JD: That’s why I’m doing Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl—Vertamae uses camouflaging wonderfully. And then finding out what it all means, finding out that there’s so much of the Gullah-Geechee dialect in everyday English language, almost a thousand words. Like everyone knows what goobers means: you know, the peanuts they sell at movie theaters. Goobers is a Gullah word derived from the west African nguba, meaning “peanut.” And whenever anyone goes on a camping trip with the Girl Scouts, they’re singing “Kumbayah,” right? That means “Come by here.” That was what the Gullah slave people used to sing around the campfire. It was all: Dear God, come by, hear me, come and get me up out of this,and it just came off as “kum ba yah.” Now, even in corporate America, people say, Well, we’re not going to have a kum ba yah moment here. So now it just means things are warm and fuzzy—you know, singing together. The real meaning’s gone missing—whitewashed, absorbed into mainstream America, and lost to African American history. 

BLVR: That’s so interesting. I’ve been trying to do a little research on the indigenous languages of the Caribbean, and again, there are so many words that are part of our collective American vocabulary: canoe, hurricane. And it’s like, of course! Our language is made by the people who’ve lived here, who’ve moved through here. Despite it all. 

JD: Yeah. Barbecue, too, right? Barbacoa, or something like that. It comes from barbacoa

BLVR: I know you’ve been working on the Vertamae project for a long time, but I’m wondering what it’s like to return to the documentary form after working in the narrative form for the majority of your career. 

JD: It’s such a sweet relief. I just need time to do it. I really, really enjoy it because we can do what we like. Unlike with the studio films: they’re so concerned that people won’t understand. For instance, with the Angela Davis biopic: she eventually joined the Communist Party, but not the Communist Party USA. She joined a faction of the Communist Party called the Che-
Lumumba Club. Now, Americans don’t even know that there were factions of the Communist Party—it’s all the same to them. The media promotes an image of a sickle and hammer and that’s all we really know about it. So if you’re going to talk about the Che-Lumumba Club in relation to a feature film about Angela Davis, then you have to know who Patrice Lumumba was! And then you also have to know who Che Guevara was in the world at that time. Angela Davis recognized their importance. 

BLVR: But the result is a kind of lie. 

JD: It’s a lie, yeah, because the sickle-and-hammer people on the East Coast actually didn’t acknowledge the Che-Lumumba Club until Angela Davis was on trial for her life, and they realized she would be great publicity for the Communist Party. And then they jumped in wholeheartedly to support her defense. So many things have to be made clear. 

BLVR: Absolutely. And so, by contrast, is the relief of working on the documentary film more about working independently than it is about preferring the documentary genre? 

JD: Exactly. It’s a minefield. 

BLVR: Beyond these negotiations, what has the research pro-
cess for the Angela Davis film been like? Is it based on her autobiography? 

JD: It’s based upon the autobiography, yes. And she’s still alive. So I’m able to sit with her and talk with her. She’s been active in so many places. She was active in France. She was active in Germany. She’s talked about life in Birmingham, growing up on Dynamite Hill, where the bombs were going off constantly. We only have two hours in which to tell the story, so that’s the challenge. She’s very open—you know, her major, before she switched to philosophy, was Romance languages, French literature. So she understands that there will be dramatic scenes to help move the story forward. 

IV. THE JOY

BLVR: It seems you’ve always been embedded in a community of really close creative relationships: writers like bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Toni Cade Bambara (may she rest in peace); dancers like Martina Young, the choreographer and star of Four Women; actors like Barbara-O; fellow filmmakers like Arthur Jafa— 

JD: Right, or production designers like Kerry James Marshall, who brought so much to the visual style and structure of Daughters of the Dust. I mean, he was just making stuff in his workshop. He had a whole wall of images that he pulled, and we’d go through them. We were wondering, What did the indigo plantations look like? Because there are no photographs from the Sea Islands. And so he suggested we look for images of the places where they’re still processing indigo in West Africa, and we re-created those ancient types of mounds. Everything had to be built. Like, the chair that Nana Peazant was going to be sitting in had to be totally organic. Michael Kelly Williams [the film’s art director] took an old chair that he had started to repair and created this Game of Thrones–type thing, but with branches and twigs. And then Kerry and Michael built the ship’s figurehead floating in the muck and mire. All the paddles we used when they were going upriver: he carved all those out himself. Everything was created because we couldn’t just get props from a props shop—it was all based upon the collective memories of the people living on those islands. So we had all of West Africa to think about in terms of artifacts, because the people came from various ethnic tribes in West Africa, right? 

BLVR: It’s almost like a ritual: the film set itself, the work of conjuring those objects. 

JD: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

BLVR: Where do those objects live now? Do you have any of the objects that were made on set? 

JD: No, we were so broke afterward that everything that was put in storage was auctioned, or it’s still down there. We gave the house that was built to one of the actors in the film. He probably used it as a shed on his property. Because it’s built old-style, you know? 

BLVR: Have you maintained a relationship to the Sea Islands over the years? 

JD: Well, yeah—I go down every couple of months because my uncle is in Charleston; he has the homestead down there. And all the family’s buried there. Between Charleston and Saint John Island. We were shooting on Hunting Island, and we’d go do our banking on the mainland. Now that place looks like, I don’t know, Calabasas [in California]. It has its own outdoor mall, the whole nine yards, you know? There’s a lot of talk about that because they’re pressuring people to give up their property down there: it’s all being lost to taxes or to “family” just appearing. It’s all this million-dollar beachfront property that was unmanageable back in the ’20s—no one wanted to be down there, because they didn’t have air conditioning. Swampy, mosquitoes. But now they’re building hotels and condos. They changed city laws so your house has to be elevated a certain number of feet, because it’s low country, and for a lot of folks, sitting your house up on cinder blocks is just about the best you can do. But if it’s not elevated properly, they take your property. Or if your relatives migrate up to New York or Philadelphia, if the old people die and the land isn’t tended for a certain number of years, they just take it. They have all kinds of scams. 

BLVR: It’s the same strategy, really, all around the world. This sounds like a direct description of what’s going on in Puerto Rico right now. Given all this worsening exploitation, what’s keeping you inspired these days? 

JD: My work: I have several film projects in various stages of development. Also, I’m interested in how people are thinking about everyday objects in the world and how to use and reuse them in different ways. One thing I noticed that’s really picked up: you can find bottle trees online and order one from Amazon. We had Kerry James Marshall make our bottle trees based upon the deep research we did in the Sea Islands. And now it’s part of the culture to have a bottle tree with blue bottles in your backyard. When you read around online, they’ll say, Oh yeah, bottle trees, they originated in Texas and this and that. Oh my god. OK. It’s been, like, thirty years, almost thirty years since Daughters, and now you can get a little bottle tree to put in your window. I laughed when I saw it on Amazon. 

BLVR: Wow. You have to laugh to keep from crying. 

JD: Get you a little bottle tree! I’m on spring break all week, just writing other Afrofuturistic things… 

BLVR: What kinds of Afrofuturistic things? 

JD: Well, I have a project called Cypher that I’ve been working on for years, about an encryption specialist. 

BLVR: Oh yeah! Is this the one that used to be called Digital Diva

JD: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Oh my god, you do know stuff. 

BLVR: I try to do my homework! Encryption is such a theme in this conversation, because we were talking about— 

JD: The code switching and camouflaging. Yeah. It’s a natural progression to go toward encryption. And the ciphers used in hip-hop. 

BLVR: At the beginning of Illusions, doesn’t Mignon pitch an idea for a film about the Navajo code talkers, who developed a combat code language in World War II? 

JD: You know, I came upon footage of the Navajo code talkers while doing research for something else in the 1980s. And it was like, what? They never taught us this in school. Eventually they made a Hollywood movie about it where a code talker had to be sacrificed. That’s the white male gaze on things: like he was so valuable they were gonna put a bullet in his head if they thought he was about to be captured. What kind of shit is that? We love you. You hold the magic potion. You hold the formula, so you may have to die if you share it with anyone other than us. Colonialism. A little bit of that is in Cypher, flashbacks about the code talkers. People are saying, But, JD, don’t you think people will be confused? I’m like: no. 

BLVR: And also, isn’t it OK for people to be confused? Some people don’t know. And even if some people are confused because they don’t know, they can learn. Why would you want to give up the potential to inspire somebody to learn? 

JD: What’s the joy?

More Reads
Interviews

An Interview with Maggie Nelson

Ross Simonini
Interviews

An Interview with Chuck D

Melissa Locker
Interviews

The Process: Roy Wood Jr., “Receipt” Joke

Soni Brown
More