Class of 1974
Julie Dash didn’t start out to be a filmmaker. When she came to the City College campus in 1970, she chose psychology as her major. A year earlier, however, while still in high school, she had taken an after-hours film workshop at the Studio Museum in Harlem. That led to the film program at CCNY’s Leonard Davis Center for the Performing Arts. The result has been a breakthrough career full of awards.
Her best-known film, “Daughters of the Dust” (1992), which she produced, wrote and directed, was selected as one of the 50 best independent films ever made by Filmmaker’s Magazine and as one of the most important films by an African-American in the 20th century by the Newark Film Festival. Shot on a low budget over several years, “Daughters of the Dust,” the complex story of a black family with roots in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, won a prize for best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival. It became the first film by an African-American woman to gain general theatrical release and is included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Another of her acclaimed films, “Illusions,” is set in 1942 and is the story of two women in wartime Hollywood. One is a black studio executive passing for white; the other is a black singer who dubs the voice of a white star in movie musicals. In “Calling the Shots,” their book on women filmmakers, Janis Cole and Holly Dale describe “Illusions” as typical of Dash’s work, telling stories on many levels and “playing on themes of sexual, cultural and racial domination.” It was released in 1982 and won a Black American Cinema Society Award in 1985, and a Black Filmmaker Foundation Jury Prize in 1989 as best film of the decade.
Dash was born in Queens on Oct. 22, 1952 and raised in a Long Island City housing project. While an undergraduate at the College’s Leonard Davis Center, she wrote the script for a documentary, “Working Models of Success,” for the New York Urban Coalition. Armed with a two-year fellowship after getting her B.A., she moved to Los Angeles and earned an M.F.A. in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA, studying under such filmmakers as Ján Kadár, William Friedkin and Slavko Vorkapich. At UCLA, she was part of a new generation of African and African-American filmmakers known as the L.A. Rebellion. Their aim: to create a “black cinema” as an alternative to classic Hollywood productions. In 1977, she produced “Four Women,” a short dance film based on a Nina Simone song. It won a gold medal for Women in Film at the Miami International Film Festival. In the late 1970s, inspired by the writings of Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker, she stopped making documentaries and realized her need to make narrative movies.
Dash has created a number of films for television, including “The Rosa Parks Story” in 2002. Starring Angela Bassett, it was named as Best Television Movie of the year by the NAACP Image Awards. It also won the Family Television Award and the New York Christopher Award, and brought Black Reel Awards to Bassett as Best Actress, Cicely Tyson as Best Supporting Actress, Paris Qualles for his teleplay, and to the film as Best Network/Cable Film. In addition, Dash became the first African-American woman nominated as best director in the category of Primetime Movies Made for Television. For MTV, she did a film called “Love Story,” featuring the singer Monica. She has written and directed segments for HBO’s “Subway Stories” and Showtime’s “Women” series. She has directed two original films for Black Entertainment Television and has filmed music videos for many artists, including Tracy Chapman.
Among her honors: the Maya Deren Award from the American Film Institute and the Candace Award from the Black Filmmakers’ Hall of Fame. She’s held Fulbright, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships and has shown her work at film festivals from London to Tokyo.