Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, we don our film school caps as we look at one of UCLA’s prominent graduates of the 70s, and a major voice in the LA Rebellion. Julie Dash is up to bat, as is her 1982 short film Illusions, alongside a few other films for context. Have a click through to see what’s what!
Let’s cast back and reflect for a moment. Our last seven films have traced a route of thirty years since Ida Lupino’s Outrage, one of the few studio films helmed by a female director in the decades since the mass corporatization of the Hollywood system in the early 1920s. In this time, select women have certainly found small niches as directors in American cinema — 2019’s Registry class brought us Gunvor Nelson’s personal films out of LA, Elaine May’s success within the New Hollywood system, and Claudia Weill working under grants in NYC, all within the same decade’s span. This same period housed the early work of documentarian Barbara Kopple and the entirety of Shirley Clarke’s most productive and successful stretch, both earlier National Film Registry inductees in their own right. Excepting May, however, they’ve all been independent voices, a mere one woman granted a big studio contract in the thirty years since Lupino fell out of favor. The years of Heckerling and Spheeris and Seidelman and Marshall and Bigelow making breakthroughs into the mainstream with documentaries and comedies and horrors are just around the corner, but one again notes an absence amidst our lineup: no women of color. Madeline Anderson’s television work, yes, yet nobody working on the big screen, no black women or women of any ethnic background other than presumed-standard white in all this time. Hell, the only black directors we’ve seen in this earlier period have worked purely outside the studio system on their Registry inductees, your Oscar Micheaux, your Melvin van Peebles, your Cornelius Allen Alexander. That we dive into a grab-bag of thirty-nine films thus far from a period when the Library of Congress makes a point of highlighting diverse voices in its selection and still come up with so few examples really speaks to the historical lack of opportunity at play here.
I consider this worth opening on because films forty and forty-one bring a break from this pattern, two films from the same year directed by black American women. Neither of these achieved any widespread success, distribution, or even notice on their original release, but they do speak to the early rumblings of growing film movements from marginalized classes that would eventually become the larger, healthier slate of work from POC minds we see today, same as Zoot Suit from last year’s class. Next week’s is likely the more first-across-the-line notable of the two, being the first feature by an African-American woman in sixty years, but chronological survey dictates we come to Julie Dash first. Not even Julie Dash’s highest profile achievement (Daughters of the Dust’s landmark nationwide distribution deal will have to wait a while before its spotlight in this column), though by no means a lesser or unimportant one, as it directly tackles the very attitudes which led to the above-outlined paucity. Today, we tango with her short film Illusions, and in so doing reckon with and argue against the very legacy that left female and POC voices so far removed from Hollywood’s creative center stage.
First, though, we need to get some context going: Dash’s family hails from Gullah origins (coastal and island-dwellers off the US’ southeast coast with their own culture and creole language), though she was born and raised in New York City. Her studies at CCNY’s film program initially focused on documentarian work before modern English literature classes opened her eyes to the wealth of stories from black women present on the American bookshelves and magazine racks of her day. To her mind, the moving image needed black women’s presence and perspective just as much as the written word, if not moreso, and so she moved to Los Angeles to study under UCLA’s graduate film school at just the right time to meet and mingle with the other student filmmakers who would constitute the LA Rebellion movement. As part of this movement, Dash’s films came to reflect an interest in black woman’s place in the world, her relation to the centuries of systemic oppression against her people, and radical methods of connection as means of thriving and surviving beyond the past’s definitions. In the years between her arrival at UCLA and the 1982 release of Illusions under their dime, Dash produced three other pictures, while the ten years between today’s short and her mainstream release of Daughters of the Dust brought but one other.
The first of these films, the documentary Working Models of Success from 1973, is sadly out of my reach. The others, however — 1975’s Four Women, 1977’s Diary of an African Nun, and 1991’s Praise House — were all available through Criterion Channel’s program on Dash’s filmography. Having watched the lot and considered them in conjuncture with Illusions, I think it worth yet another break with convention to discuss each in brief, so we might understand today’s preserved short all the better.
So. Four Women is an experimental dance film centered around the Nina Simone song of the same name. A young woman, Linda Martina Young, represents the four women of the four verses through her varied movements. The overworked and over-relied upon Aunt Sarah expresses herself through a twisting neck and spinning arms, as if to shake the weight of the world from her shoulders; the unwanted mixed-race child of Saffronia bends and splays and twirls her long limbs to keep a hurting world at arm’s length; Sweet Thing the prostitute sways her hips and strokes her face in display of passionless sensuality after years of reduction; and the righteous revolutionary Peaches intimates swipes and stomps in a display of ferocity at all who kept her forbearers down. What strikes me most in watching the short, however, is not the actual dancing, though Young’s movements are beautiful on their own and in time with Dash’s cuts. No, it’s how Dash begins the film with an evocation of the distant and her techniques for rendering that present. The short begins with about a minute of pure fabrics, cloth and silk dancing on their own before compressing down to completely coat Young, her active figure only gradually emerging from beneath their folds as Simone’s voice strikes the first line. Sounds of whipping and women’s suffering fills the soundtrack before the song. In grounding our understanding of the sequence with the materials which comprise the costumes Young dons for each of the four women and tying it so closely to the legacy of slavery, I find Dash makes clear the power of the costuming to collapse distance between these experiences. Different though they are in dress and action, all four figures are recipients to the same legacy, dressed in styles born from the same generations-old trauma, embodied by a woman made fourfold and yet one through her art. The finale sees Peaches’ dance evoke the other three through crossfades as compliments to her last movements, directly echoing what was merely implication before. Keep these concepts in mind, especially the matter of literalization, for Dash will return to them time and again.
In fact, the concept of sound tying the physical present to the remembered past is right at the forefront of Diary of an African Nun, drawn from the Alice Walker short story of the same name, and using much the same text from the page for star Barbara O. Jones’ narration. The titular nun spends her days walking her nameless village, watching the men at work and children at play, contemplating her duties, her dedication to the fast and the impoverishment and the suffering white man upon the cross. At night, during which the bulk of the short takes place, the sister (who refers to herself as Gloria, from “Gloria in excelsis Deo”) gradually sheds her habit to rest at an early hour as per her vows, yet is quickly bedeviled by sounds from outside. In the village, the people dance round a great fire in ecstatic celebration, reminding her of all she has given up, tempting her to doubt where this holy life is an truer or nobler or simply better for her own being, much less those outside her order would call sinful for their traditions. Dash never shows the celebration, nor takes us beyond Gloria’s room once she enters. All we are privy to is shots of her restless attempts to sleep, her contemplation of a crucifix, her eyes staring at the ceiling or out into pitch black nothingness, alone with her thoughts. There arises a three-way dialogue between these images of Jones’s tossing, pacing doubt, the nervous calm in her literary narrated words as she takes herself dancing in her imagination before pulling back to reaffirm her beliefs, and the steady beat of drums and chanting voices from just beyond the confining walls. Three spaces intermingling, none providing the complete picture, the imagined flights and agonies only visible to the mind’s eye through combination of image and speech and backbeat, all collapsed into a thought that cannot remain. The twin masters of duty and sanctity demand all remain disparate, distant from one another no matter how obviously they occupy the same space. In addition to her fascination with assumed identities and sound as a bridge across vast space, we can add a recurrent idea of struggles against responsibility to Dash’ repertoire.
Jump forward fourteen years, long past today’s main event, and we find this idea at play in the generational mini-drama of Praise House, initially produced and broadcast for the PBS program Alive from Off-Center. Here are three women of the same bloodline: Granny (Laurie Carlos), Hannah (Viola Sheely), and Mama (Terri Cousar). Granny is in her twilight years, largely infirm and long lost in childhood memories, yet still capable of hosting revelry about the house with a great number of friends, clapping and singing and dancing in praise of something greater past the boundary to the beyond… though whether these friends are flesh and blood or angels seen with more than eyes is in some doubt. Hannah has a close bond with her grandmother, and follows in her footsteps with the help of an art collective who may be yet another gathering of divine messengers, but she’s possessed of no practicality or consideration for the present, completely adrift in a world of baseless inspiration without the years to grant her a far-flung memorial landscape like her elder. All pragmatism in the household falls on Mama’s shoulders, Mama who spends her days toiling away at the factory before coming home to fret over her mother and badger her daughter into any kind’ve shape. For all the glorification and celebration which takes place in and around their house, one can feel the conflict amongst these women, all clearly passionate and caring for one another without the resources to adequately express this, or better the too-idealistic or too-pragmatic amongst them towards a happier medium.
While its origins on public television at a moment when analogue video editing was the In Thing leave it the technically weirdest of Dash’s films here highlighted (check those colored line smears in the air at one point), it does quite a lot to advance our understanding of Dash’s preferences and preoccupations as a filmmaker. Granny predicts her own death and goes out on the wings of a gliding angel in warehouse surroundings, prompting Hannah to stage a revelry at her grandmother’s grave, only to sink from chill exposure and require rescue by her mother’s hand. Conflict intensifies at the house, Mama completely and totally incapable of understanding Hannah’s grieving process, convinced her daughter is lost to the same delusions or madness which took her own mother, at the point of disowning her to avoid further pain. It almost breaks Hannah as she takes up a post at the same factory as her mother, seemingly devoid of the passions which previously defined her… and then it arrives. Song. Dance. Angels upon rollerskates. At first frightening and confusing to the young woman; then, slowly it worms its way into her bones, and she joins in, alongside her mother, her grandmother’s voice spinning tales of bygone youth and religion all the while. Staged in the graveyard, amongst the dead, her memorial to her lost relative only causes her to succumb, to weaken. Staged in a place of life, where the fanciful can mingle with the productive, where a new memory can be grown from the seeds found at their house, in combination with her mother’s own work, that imperative to create and sing and praise becomes a healthy thing. A miraculous moment with no visible origin point, understanding achieved through simple force of necessity, personalities in diametric opposition finding common ground in grieving and work and jubilation at all that was and will be again. In short, the unity of place and purpose breaks boundaries and makes things better far easier than any conscious or active effort. Again the adoption of costume and performance on the right stage are of vital importance, again there is power in physicality and cultural heritage to make the broken new afresh, again we intermingle the responsible and the artistic to blend a workable, unified perspective. It’s esoteric as all hell, but beautiful in its own way, and quintessentially Dash, no doubt.
With all this in mind, we can finally tackle Illusion, flinging ourselves back to Hollywood’s wartime efforts into a world of black-and-white music and drama. For you see, Illusions is Dash’s exploration of the cinema culture at the time, centered around the young producer Mignon Dupree (Lonette McKee), a light-skinned black woman who readily passes for white and has worked her way to a rather influential position within the fictional National Studios in 1942. The film plays as a classical Hollywood drama in miniature, exploring Mignon’s relationships with the various men and forces around her studio: she fends off unwanted romantic advances from overbearing army liaison Lieutenant Bedsford (Ned Bellamy) between managing his superiors’ demands for yet more patriotic messaging, tries to get studio boss CJ Forrester (Jack Radar) to listen to her ideas for films about Navajo code talkers and ordinary people during wartime despite his insistence on feeding the public’s thirst for traditional heroism ,and has to intervene on the minor technical problems that become major hurdles for the films she oversees, usually the lightest escapist fare rather than the serious social films she’d like to see. It’s a lot of the old-style acting as seen in a thousand inside-the-studio dramas, shot with a chameleon’s aptitude for mimicry of the era’s set dressing and cinematography, which immediately grounds one in the mindset of watching a segment of some recently discovered 40s flick. Double its thirty-seven minute length with some elaboration on the subplots and some extended conversations, and you’d almost never guess it hails from decades after the collapse of its studio setting. In fact, Dash does such a good job at reproducing every aspect of the an era forty years gone, she even notes in later interviews some of her contemporaries thought the mimicry was all Illusions had to offer. Further scratching at the film reveals nothing could be further from the truth.
The main issue Mignon must solve during the short’s middle stretch is one of desynced audio. Something went wrong while filming one of the major sequences for their latest musical, resulting in sound and image totally out of step with one another during a vital sequence, and the lead actress is completely unavailable for overdubs. Left little other option, Mignon and the sound crew call upon the services of Esther Jeeter (Rosanne Katon), an aspiring young black actress with a lovely voice who’s been bumming around the various studios seeking work for some time now. She’s rushed into the recording booth, and we find ourselves in the midst of a sequence wholly unlike anything except the artistically boldest of the Hollywood wartime films. With the reflection of a sound engineer mirrored in the lower frame, we look upon a field of total darkness, with only Esther in small profile on the left, and the projected image of the white woman whose voice she is to provide on the right. The tones of Ella Fitzgerald fill the air, the great jazz singer’s voice occupying Katon’s throat much as Esther’s own tunes to the actress’ lips. We cut back and forth between the filmed sequence and close-ups on Esther in the booth, and there is such naked joy on her face at getting to play any part in a Hollywood production, much less the part audiences will remember and rave about most, the central musical number. Regardless whether she will get credit, regardless her standing all alone in an infinite nothing with the eyes of an engineer watching for a single slip, she knows a truth few others will ever know, and for her this is enough. This amazing chance to be without being seen, power divorced from presence, is intoxicating in the moment.
(It’s also the main reason Dash had to make this film with UCLA’s facilities, as no other independent grant program could guarantee her the equipment to adequately record and dub post-processed vocals like this — given the effect of this one magical sequence, it was certainly worth the effort.)
When Esther confides as much in Mignon after the performance, and furthermore implies she can see Mignon’s real heritage and thinks it just keen she’s gotten so far without anyone realizing, McKee’s reactions make it clear she’s troubled by what she sees. Her character is evidently happy for the young woman, but forces beyond her control mean she won’t receive so much as an offer for a studio contract, much less payment or credit for saving their behinds at the last minute. This becomes a bother at the back of her mind, a dissatisfaction with simply getting by and accepting the way things are. It remains nibbling at her conscious until she’s alone in her office, and once again confronted by Lieutenant Bedsford, who’s also figured out her secret, and wants to shame her for what he sees as deception. How dare she sit in a position comparable to his own, wielding authority, and being black without TELLING anyone? At this juncture, Dahs and McKee break from the act and let the bastard have it full force. Why should she be ashamed of having neglected to mention her origins from a black background? These opportunities would have been closed to her had she made any explicit reference, and everything she’s accomplished to date has been entirely through her own ability, not some handout or ill-gotten valor. The studio may deny Esther her chance for being black, it may not want to hear Mignon’s ideas, it may bend over backward for Bedsford’s orders from the army rather than producing any films that tell the young people to better their communities instead of shipping out to kill and die, but what of it? Really, what actually of it? She’s here, has her power, isn’t at all ashamed of who she is, and he’s not about to bruise his own ego or reputation by telling anyone. All the garbage she has to put up with in the course of her job isn’t inborn and unchangeable, it’s the byproduct of a deeper sickness in the American culture itself, and if working and fighting for something better where that young woman can’t has any chance to make a difference, she’s gonna stay right here, and hell to Bedsford and anyone like him with their racist notions of what will and won’t. All this in one blast of a very vocal speech.
It is, frankly, the single least cinematic moment in Dash’s highlighted filmography. A straight-on speech which dispenses any notion of divorced sound and poetic image as the central strengths of the medium in favor of bluntly passionate words. Even Diary of an African Nun played with image and the word’s relation to what’s not there when it became this dialogue-heavy. It is also the necessary component to complete Dash’s evocation of the decade’s movie styles, and reveal just why Illusions is so important and impactful a work. Those old Hollywood movies would break with decent cinematic convention to moralize too, taking the ideals and traditions men like Bedsford and his commanders put in their mouths and regurgitating them to a public eager to hear again and again. Understand, great films came from this era on the regular, films which broke step from the ordained messaging and snuck subversive or progressive thoughts into the American moviehouse, but all too often the same era produced straight propaganda, unchallenging works which reinforced the cultural norm by both what they said and who they never showed. Certainly you’d never hear anything so direct as reference to America’s long-standing racist institutions as wrong from one of the people they wronged, or reference to the war as a machine that eats young men without a single counterpoint arguing its nobility. There’s radicalism here, righteousness, white-hot and angry and bursting with the desire to stand above all the muck clawing at its ankles, the sort certainly present in 40s America but never afforded its day on the silver screen. In her duplication of this old-fashioned style, in following all the same steps as a director from the 1940s while pursuing her usual late 70s/early 80s goals, Dash achieves the ultimate in what we’ve seen in Four Women, and Diary of an African Nun, and Praise House, by way of literalizing all she worked through representative image before and after Illusions.
All of a sudden any spatial or temporal distance is gone, and we’re in the theater in 1942, watching a film which wears the look and walks the walk of any other picture to flicker through that projector, watching as a black woman argues pride in her heritage and the necessity of opposing harmful societal structures, a black woman who stands her ground and makes her point and gets to walk away retaining all the power and influence she’d earned before we met her. It is as if something muffled the entire time it needed to speak were unleashed, and finally spoke in the exact context where it should have been all along, with the precise movements and attitudes it would have embodied had it been permitted in the first place. The very illusion the Hollywood of this day sold is shattered when confronted with someone who wants to tell stories from the marginalized who were heroes, the ordinary folks who were never on the screen, the underappreciated people of color who should’ve been afforded the same chances as their white counterparts in the nation’s greatest mass messaging machine. There’s a lot going on as Dash separates the voice from the self to place it in new surroundings and show what power it can wield through the divorce, dresses her actors and sets to perfectly resemble those of the Golden Age to make subtle points towards the ills of that time, uses conversation between a dark-skinned black woman who’s forever denied her shot and a light-skinned woman who’ll never be ashamed of who she is to advance a front of unity and inspiration to action… but it’s really about the moments when we see four as one, find sorrowful determination in a nun’s eyes, watch a mother and daughter dance in grief and joy at once, see McKee stand her ground and shout holy hell without a shred of metaphor or roundabout communication in her words. These moments when Dash takes her thematic content and makes it a sudden hammer on the screen are what make her movies great.
Indispensable, even. The world needs filmmakers capable of understanding why the dance of light and shadows that is film captivates us so, and how best to use their flicker to introduce a dose of reality to our filmic diet. Dash never got quite the career her short films indicated she should, largely relegated to smaller independent and televised works, though never losing her passion or capacity to speak with uncommon clarity through these smaller venues. All the same, she produced these works, a collection exploring the self in relation to racial history and black culture and mass entertainment repurposed as mouthpiece for the silenced radical. We have them now, the National Film Registry will have the best of their number for the rest of time, and the voices in Illusions, both native to the tongues which speak them and transplanted to a new host via the moving image, should echo long and loud as far as possible. I implore my readers to get Kanopy through their libraries, or encourage their library to sign up for the program, both for the sake of seeing this film for yourselves, and to open your diet to a thousand other voices who speak with passion and truth in their hearts just like Julie Dash. We can only project our ideas from the now onto the past, but we can always listen and make what we hear reality into the future. God bless.
Wordy, innit! If you’ve had a chance to see any of these shorts yourself, what’d you make of ‘em? Any further insight to share on Dash’s work? Lemme know below, and keep your eyes peeled for next week’s film. As mentioned, 1982 also brought a major event for black female filmmakers in America, the first feature drama directed by a black woman since the 1920s. We’ll be looking at tragically short-lived director Kathleen Collins’ story about a married couple’s struggles, featuring Seret Scott and Bill Gunn in Losing Ground! Neglected for decades prior to its 2015 restoration, it can now be viewed through Criterion Channel. Catch you then!