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6 Degrees of Geechee

6 Degrees of Geechee
May 2015
Filmmaker Julie Dash, celebrated for elevating African-American heritage on the silver screen, is chronicling the worldly vibrations of culinary griot and beatnik Geechee girl Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

Her New York accent is all Queens, her hair a commotion of curls, her eyes strong and bright. Julie Dash gets your attention, if not with her striking presence and persuasive smile, then with her impressive body of work. Mention her name around film aficionados and you get knowing nods: “Oh yes, Julie Dash.” In academic circles related to film studies, African-American history and culture, and women’s studies, her name is even more recognizable, almost approaching cult status.

With 14 directorial film credits, a Director’s Guild Award, and the distinction of being the first African-American woman to direct a wide-release motion picture—Daughters of the Dust (1991)—Dash is more or less a female Spike Lee. She’s worked with actors Angela Bassett and Cicely Tyson and singers Tracy Chapman and Sweet Honey in the Rock, as well as scores of others, including filming actor Danny Glover and musician Hugh Masekela for her current project, a documentary on Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. But to students at the College of Charleston, where she’s been a visiting artist and scholar at the Avery Research Center, a division of the College of Charleston libraries, since 2011, she’s simply “professor,” the one who’s teaching them the finer points of cinematography—even how to make a film using the smartphone iOS platform. The best camera these days? “The one that’s in your pocket, because it’s accessible, it’s right there when you need it,” Dash says, paraphrasing photographer Chase Jarvis.

She’s no nonsense—it’s all about the work. Dash doesn’t dither with showbiz pretense or Hollywood aura, even though she’s “officially bicoastal,” with her home in L.A. when she’s not in Charleston, and hails from a glam pedigree: her older sister, Charlene, was one of the first black supermodels with the Ford Agency in the 1970s, gracing international runways and fashion spreads in magazines from Vogue to Ebony to LOOK. And her uncle Julian Dash, one of her father’s six brothers who were born and raised in Charleston then moved North, was a noted jazz saxophonist and co-writer of the iconic tune “Tuxedo Junction.”

Dash simply does what it takes to get the job done—just ask the crew members who worked on the filming of her breakout Daughters of the Dust and joined her in traipsing around Hunting and St. Helena islands’ beaches, swamps, and maritime forests wearing Dracula capes as rain gear. “It was after Halloween, and they were on sale. That’s low-budget Hollywood for you,” says Dash, who shot the film for $800,000—and that’s including a hefty line item for DEET and Skin-So-Soft, thanks to ravenous post-Hurricane Hugo mosquitoes and gnats.

On the Map
Daughters of the Dust, which Dash began researching in the late ’70s while she was a fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, is a dreamy, ethereal, winding tale of an extended Gullah family at the turn of the century as they prepare to leave their matriarch, Nana Peazant, and their moss-draped, memory-drenched Sea Island homestead for “progress” and migration to mainland culture. Released in 1992, the film received critical acclaim—“Mesmerizing,” according to the Boston Globe; “poetry in motion,” said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; “an unprecedented achievement” heralded the Village Voice—and won the 1991 Sundance Film Festival Best Cinematography Award. Daughters not only put Dash on the map, it introduced the Gullah-Geechee culture, language, and food to a much broader audience than ever before. Though now more than 20 years old, the film is still screened nationally and internationally and was inducted in 2004 into the Library of Congress’ American Film Registry as one of 400 national film treasures.

“This movie really changed my life,” says cultural anthropologist Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane, executive director of the Avery Research Center, who remembers attending a screening in Atlanta (“the Mecca of all things black”) the summer before she went to graduate school at Dartmouth. “It was the first time I’d seen a film that situated black life and black women’s lives so straight in the middle. It was so magical, so beautiful; historically correct and yet ethereal. I was obsessed.” Lessane went on to incorporate aspects of Daughters as a post-slavery slave narrative into her doctoral research, and today she frequently uses the film in her classes when discussing Africanisms in the American and the African-American experiences.

Many viewers with no previous exposure to Sea Island history and Gullah culture compared watching Daughters of the Dust—with its impressionistic cinematography, moody and wild landscapes, and mythic narrative delivered in mysterious, lyrical dialect (with no subtitles)—to watching a foreign film. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that going to esoteric foreign flicks in Manhattan with her older sister was how Dash first became entranced by the silver screen as a young teen. “My sister had traveled to France (she modeled in the infamous Versailles Battle of 1973), and she took me one afternoon to a French film, and then to a French restaurant, and I was hooked,” Dash says. “It roused my fascination with films of unknown cultures.”

This early intrigue led Dash, then in high school, to enroll in an after-school workshop in filmmaking at the Studio Museum of Harlem, and from there to the City College of New York for her bachelor’s of art in film production, followed by a fellowship at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Studies in L.A. She then earned her MFA in film and television production at UCLA. “I was lucky to have teachers who were hippies, who encouraged experimentation,” says Dash, who initially wanted to be a cinematographer, “until I discovered I wasn’t very good at it,” and then gravitated toward producing and directing. In addition to her long list of credits (see sidebar), Dash has been a frequent lecturer at universities, including Harvard; Stanford; Yale; and of course, the College of Charleston, where Lessane, a die-hard Dash fan, was thrilled to lure her mentor and idol.

Geechee Vibrations
Teaching at the Avery Research Center, her father’s and uncles’ alma mater (then the Avery Normal Institute), has been an ironic homecoming for Dash, who spent summers traveling from Queens to visit her extended Charleston-based family; her mother was from Union, South Carolina. “When my father was growing up and in school, being ‘Geechee’ was frowned upon. Their teachers insisted they speak properly; they had it [Gullah accents] worked right out of them, here at Avery,” says Dash, whose film showcased the endangered dialect, in essence reversing her Avery predecessors’ efforts. Dash hired Gullah language experts to consult on both Daughters the film and her subsequent novel of the same title (a sequel to the film). “I wanted the dialogue to be authentic,” she says. Enter Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a proud “Geechee girl” and Gullah language and food consultant extraordinaire, a force to be reckoned with, and now the subject of Dash’s current film project.

Dash vividly remembers her first encounter with Smart-Grosvenor in the mid ’80s. “I saw this title at a bookstore in New York, Vibration Cooking or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. I was stunned that she had used the word ‘Geechee.’ People just didn’t use that term—it was like the N-word,” says Dash, whose family was proud of being from Charleston, but ‘Geechee’ references were only whispered privately. “If you were African-American and you wanted to call someone out, you called them a ‘Geechee,’” she recalls.

Smart-Grosvenor—a native of Fairfax, South Carolina, who eventually lived in Philadelphia, Paris, and New York—however, embraced the moniker and celebrated Gullah traditions and gumbos in her 1970 culinary memoir, with its folksy, straight-shooting, blog-like tone that was fresh, funny, and thoroughly ’70s-ish (“I dig it”). Readers “dug” it, as did the media—Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration (“I never measure anything… I cook by vibration,” she wrote) became a best seller and has had a four-decade-long ripple effect. She’s appeared on The Today Show and Nightline, was an NPR commentator and host of the series Horizons, served as editor of Elan magazine, worked on the film Beloved, and was close friends with Maya Angelou and Nina Simone. Tall and cosmopolitan, a woman of pageantry and style (elegant hats and African-inspired garb), Smart-Grosvenor became a high, cool priestess of black pride, brilliantly commandeering rice, pork, gizzards, and greens as her cultural bridge. She served up the history of race in America with sass and a frying pan.

Dash worked closely with Smart-Grosvenor on Daughters (she plays the part of Hair Braider), and in 2012, Dash and Lessane began interviewing Smart-Grosvenor, who was then 75 and living back in her native Hampton County, as part of the Avery’s oral history project. “She’d talk about her first dinner party back in New York on the Lower East Side with Yoko Ono as a guest. There were tales of her living in Paris at the Beat Hotel with Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs, pictures of her with Muhammad Ali. She once suggested I take a photo of the two of us, and she’d send it to her friend, Jackie Onassis. Patricia and I realized, whoa, there is just so much here that hasn’t been told,” says Dash. “It’s like that Kevin Bacon thing—six degrees of Vertamae. She showed up everywhere, had all these mad-cap adventures, and was connected to so many significant historical movements and people.”

Last year, Lessane secured the Avery Research Center’s largest National Endowment of the Arts grant to date, $75,000, for Dash. With the support of Avery researchers, the filmmaker began work on a new film, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. An IndieGoGo campaign to crowd-fund additional financing for the project is underway. Numerous interviews for the biopic have already been shot, including those with Danny Glover and South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela; Fabio Parasecoli, a culinary scholar at The New School; Nancy Grace, author of Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation; and Sue Goodwin, former producer of NPR’s Talk of the Nation; and many more are in the works.

“As a filmmaker, this project is challenging and exciting, and a little hard to contain,” says Dash. “Every time I interview someone, I learn something new, some fascinating side road of Vertamae’s life. We’re bringing in scholars and artists who can lay a foundation for what the world was like as this six-foot-tall black woman from rural South Carolina was passing through it.” Indeed, Smart-Grosvenor was like a Gullah Zelig, playing a part in five different cultural movements: the Beat Movement, Black Power, Black Arts, New Black Cinema, and the culinary revolution. She was bold, brave, and determined to pursue excellence, notes Dash. “If this black woman in the 1950s could get on a boat and find her way to Paris, become a black beatnik and bestselling author, then maybe it will inspire women today.”

Which of course, is not unlike Julie Dash herself, who has become a role model for many, including the Oscar Award-winning director Ava DuVernay, of Selma fame. “Julie’s work leaps off the screen and into my bloodstream like a drug,” says DuVernay, who, when honored by the African American Film Critics Association in February asked Dash to present her award. “I’m in awe of her commitment and courage to intentionally and wholeheartedly show the imagery of black women. This inspires me. This shows me all is possible.”

And here in Charleston, Dash brings definite cachet to the African-American Studies program, says Lessane. “Julie is a great mentor to students. She’s not only a cinematic genius, she’s giving of her craft and ideas, and so supportive of others. She’s the yin to Vertamae’s yang. Vertamae is wily; she takes control of a room and wants to be the center of attention. Julie is unassuming and is more interested in shining the light on others. She is that kind of person.”

Julie Dash’s Career Highlights

■ Los Angeles Film Exposition’s Directors Guild Award for student film for Diary of an African Nun, 1977
■ Miami International Film Festival Gold Medal for Women in Film for Four Women, 1978
■ Guggenheim Foundation grant, 1981
■ Black Cinema Society Award for the short film Illusions, 1985
■ Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant, 1987
■ Black Filmmaker Foundation’s Jury Prize for Best Film of the Decade for Illusions, 1989
■ Sundance Film Festival Best Cinematography Award for Daughters of the Dust, 1991
■ Nominated for Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Daughters of the Dust, 1991
■ Became the first African-American woman to have a full-length general theatrical release in the U.S. with Daughters of the Dust, 1992
■ Family Television Award for Movies/Miniseries/Specials for the CBS TV movie The Rosa Parks Story, 2002
■ NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series, or Dramatic Special for The Rosa Parks Story, 2003
■ New York’s Christopher Award, which honors media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit,” for The Rosa Parks Story, 2003
■ Nominated by the Directors Guild of America, USA for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television for The Rosa Parks Story (the first African-American woman to be nominated in the category), 2003
■ The Library of Congress placed Daughters of the Dust in the National Film Registry, 2004
■ Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. named September 17 “Julie Dash Day,” 2011

Watch clips from the making of Julie Dash’s award-winning film Daughters of the Dust, as well as a trailer from her current project, a biopic on celebrated storyteller Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor.

A Scene from Daughters of the Dust:

The Making of Daughters of the Dust / Julie Dash and Cast – Part 1:

A Trailer for Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl

Help fund the making of Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.