“Daughters of the Dust” Hired Bahni Turpin and Made Moments of Healing

Buy this DVD at Amazon.com! The time has come for me to genuflect before the altar of Daughters of the Dust. This film has literally been medicinal for the women of my young adulthood—and me. But, before I get started eagerly bowing down, for the sake of “balance,” it may be helpful to contrast with a few memories of Bahni Turpin. Of course I am exaggerating but, to this day, I am not sure that Bahni Turpin knows whether I can read or write.

The last time I remember meeting—and talking to—Bahni Turpin was at an “exclusive” screening of some film where the filmmakers are actually there in the audience and they stand up at the end and talk and stuff. When she found out I was there at this screening, she looked at me with an expression that said to me, “How the hell did you get in here.” By her body language, I felt for a second that she thought I was there because I was somehow following her—because certainly for a guy who probably can’t read or write surely I could not have been there to see the film (which I actually cannot even remember right now). Now you have to ask yourself, “Why would I think that she thinks I am following her?” This might lead you to another question, “Why would she assume that I attended this ‘exclusive’ event alone?”

Daughters of the Dust: Production Design by Kerry Marshall Art Direction by Michael Kelly Williams I was actually there with the future mother of my youngest son—and Bahni Turpin would certainly know the name and instantly respect her professionally—but, based on how my life went for almost a decade after this last encounter, Bahni would be even more confused. “Why the hell would a woman of her apparent stature be with him?” Rest assured, Bahni, she is still probably asking herself this question to this very day…

At the time, I arrogantly thought that my meeting with Bahni Turpin was a laughable anomaly. Now, I understand that she represented my future relations with most “properly assimilated” people—especially people in the Black Hollywood scene. Actually, it was going to be the mother of my youngest son that would teach me most painfully that working Hollywood actors must too often be objective, cold professionals with warm, muscular smiles. It is dangerous for silly idealists like me to attempt to have “artistic” or “spiritual” relationships with these hardened hirelings. You can never be certain when they are in business mode or when they are in “artsy” mode—they can flip it on you at any time.

Daughters of the Dust: Production Design by Kerry Marshall Art Direction by Michael Kelly Williams I intend to show my respect when I call these people hustlers. Most of us (who are functional) are W2 workers. These people are hustlers—they are involved in decisions about who lives and who dies almost on a daily basis—especially when they are busy auditioning. Both Bahni Turpin and the mother of my youngest son eventually had to make a life-or-death decision about me. Bahni essentially took the superficial glance that most of my worldly colored pals take and essentially said, “This kid and his silly Black power talk won’t get him very far. He’s a dead man to the world I live in.” It was hard for me to understand that a Black artist that worked on a Black movie about the power of Black people would have so little “real world” investment in the future of Blackness. This is, of course, based on my “arrogant” assumption that my thang represents the future of Blackness which is quite different from, say, Mark Essex “perfect” Blackness. You are wont to disagree and see many apparent contradictions… Well… At the expense of the birth of human life (and deeply disappointing my father), I eventually learned my lesson.

Daughters of the Dust: Production Design by Kerry Marshall Art Direction by Michael Kelly Williams The mother of my youngest son looked at me through the lens of the males she has known before and convinced herself that she had to protect herself from me. Of course, because you can read and I can’t write, when you see the words ‘protect herself from me’ you might be thinking of something brutish, tabloid and simple involving thuggish restraining orders and night-club-assault performance art. I can’t tell you how many women wish it were just that stupid simple. No. Some people cannot stand the sight of me because of what I make them think about themselves—in fine detail. To avoid seeing themselves through my eyes they must ‘protect’ themselves by getting the hell away from me. To them, I’m like a bad odor that must be removed from the room, baby. That’s pretty simple. Some other people actually agree with my funky ideals but their hustling ways surround them with “friends” that would flee both them and me—so, in order to protect their potential income, they must get the hell away from me and put on some monkey-banana deodorant. That’s a little more complex in the world of social hygiene.

Bahni Turpin played the role of Iona Peazant in Daughters of the Dust. She was the first person to begin to break down my perfect idealization of this Julie Dash film with some professional realities that Julie Dash herself wrote about but I wistfully ignored. Remember I can’t read, right? Here is Julie Dash way back in 1992 trying to tell me what was really going on during the filming:

On another occasion, I was confronted one morning by an actor who refused to put on his costume, we were ready to shoot a scene that included him, and for whatever reason, he decided that this was the time to assert the fact that even though I was the director, he was a man and no woman could make him do anything. This man, a Muslim, who had been telling us all about the need for unity among black people, stood there in the middle of the set, in front of crew, and confronted me, physically.

Daughters of the Dust: Production Design by Kerry Marshall Art Direction by Michael Kelly Williams Now when you see the words ‘protect herself from me’ you can see the six-foot tall “black man” standing in front of my heroine, Julie Dash. You should be able to understand that, for a sensitive, creative soul, just one encounter like that would make such a careful person never place herself in this position again… You should be able to understand that when the life-or-death decision comes back again for this “black man”—and, by sheer inertia, any “black man” that even remotely resembles him—some “sensitive” artists choose death for all such men. You should be able to easily to infer from this confrontation why so many people think Black power talk is bunch of bullshit leaking out of the orifices of punk-ass, bitch-masculine hypocrites. This egotism is one of the reasons why I took the time to write “‘The Terrible Mystery’ of Gayl Jones.”

I take the time to write the previous paragraph to explain why Bahni Turpin—and all the other Black women I have complained and whined about in this Blog—would treat me like shit on the slightest hint of anything mistaken for the small man that threatened Julie Dash. I still say that this behavior is destructive and unfair but I have used my strength—which is considerable in this world and the next—to attempt to understand why these travesties of justice happen to the innocent. I am nowhere near that man who would confront Julie Dash physically—but I can assure you that I will be unjustly accused of being him without a fair trial before this month is over… I complain about this not because women can actually change the way how they make my life miserable. My apparent “obsessive fascination” with this subject should show you, reader, that when the quality of life and consciousness improves for women all over the world my most intimate, personal life will also improve.

Daughters of the Dust: Production Design by Kerry Marshall Art Direction by Michael Kelly Williams Even when Julie Dash would be in the wrong I would have completed my acting job like a disciplined warrior and Ms. Dash would have never heard from me again. In fact, as an actor, I would have used the injustice imposed on me on the real-world movie set in my performance. And the bottom line is this: I just seem to know for fact that this big, bad “black man” would have never physically confronted Steven Spielberg on the set in front of a largely all-white film crew and told all them mufukkas to shut the f’ up. There would have been ample opportunities to do this on the set of The Color Purple. You have to be super-bad like John Amos or Jim Brown to do some shit like that—very few brothers working in Hollywood right now roll like that. Let’s try zero.

I am so swaggeringly confident that I would have been clapping erasers for teacher Ms. Dash because of what else happening behind the scenes on the set of Daughters of the Dust. Julie Dash made a happening on the screen and behind the scenes as well. I am certain that I would have seen the poetry in the post-modern ritual of Black women dressing other Black women in period costumes. I would have known that this was a poetic and historic moment. A Black woman like Pamela Ferrell for example, hair stylist in Daughters of the Dust, spent her personal funds to participate in this ritual.

Daughters of the Dust `Kit` It is extremely advantageous for my personal social, sexual and “spiritual” life for Black women to get beyond “the business” and actively reflect on their history—to see themselves as the inheritor of beauty beyond beauty even in the face of extreme brutality and poverty. When I see the young Black woman preparing the white umbrella, my poetic imagination sees her reaching across time through this stage prop as intergenerational artifact. I see her thinking about her job—and the mosquitoes (which were numerous on location)—but she is also transported back in time and made to think in detail about where mother came from—and her mother’s mother—and the mother of her mother’s mother…

Not all of us have a great grandmother’s house to go to with heirlooms in the attic for her babies to rummage through—but, through this preparation for the show and the play, Julie Dash and company made healing moments of living nostalgia possible. These activities allow Black women (and, yes, Black men) to stop trying to compare themselves to ‘cultural outsiders’ and place things in functional perspective. At fantastic best, I can meet Black women with powerful, reinforced imagination who see the 21st century through eyes of, say, Ida B. Wells. Do you have any idea how a “reincarnated” Ida B. Wells or Sojourner Truth would take this punk-ass world by storm? Do you have any idea how non-playboy guys like me would become suddenly so explicitly and systematically valuable to such imaginative, productive, culturally articulate Black women?

Daughters of the Dust `Kit` The leadership of Julie Dash demanded that real visual artists, like Kerry Marshall and Michael Kelly Williams, work on Daughters of the Dust. These Black men were explicitly and systematically valuable to her. To help my fellow westernized tech nerds understand the power of this decision, what Julie Dash did was the equivalent of the Ridley Scott decisions to bring in Syd Mead or H. R. Giger for production design. Seeing this, again, through my fawning idealism, bringing ‘real’ artists on the set is like opening yet another supernatural portal into another dimension of creativity and energy that should have helped to put the actors and crew on their best behavior. As we saw earlier, this clearly was not always the case—but I still praise Julie Dash for making the attempt—and, to me, being very successful in it. Julie Dash has set a standard for how Black people should make films—how we have a performance inside of a performance and behind the performance—how the process of making the so-called work of “art” should also be a work of “art”… I have yet to see any Black filmmaker in the world improve upon these Julie Dash design goals.

Let’s just jump to the enormity of the scope Julie Dash reached for:

  • Julie Dash wanted us to see the cosmopolitan diversity of African-descended womanhood in composition and opposition.
  • Like Kurosawa, Julie Dash did not feel she had to “explain everything” being shown to some insecure easily-alienated viewer. Unlike Kurosawa, she was not praised (and subsequently financed) by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola for doing this. And, hey, I’m not saying that Akira Kurosawa had a walk through the park as a filmmaker—this is the guy who tried to kill himself in his family’s home.
  • When “white people” (Euro-Americans) came to work with Julie Dash on this project, they came to help make a Black film. That shit is very hard to do… and, based on what I saw in the DVD extras, I think Julie Dash pulled this one off.
  • Julie Dash assembled an ensemble cast of seasoned independent film veterans like Cora Lee Day, Kaycee Moore and Barbara O. For some reason I find it highly unusual for a young Black woman—especially an artist—to execute a plan to systematically locate and assemble elder Black women for any constructive purpose. Under patriarchy this can be considered an act of aggression that oppressed women rarely dream of—especially a young artist completely preoccupied with childish individualism and a magical lack of heritage.
  • Julie Dash wanted us to meditate on images and artifacts of African peoples in particular and indigenous peoples in general.
  • Julie Dash wanted us to see this meditation in juxtaposition with the “modern world”… Daughters of the Dust `Kit` And ‘meditation’ is the keyword here. You see, kids. Back when I was young man, I could not afford to take someone out to dinner. So for a happy few, I would literally prepare dinner myself in my little apartment—and that would be a “date.” Sounds strange in the 21st century, right? These “dates” would always be with young, idealistic, very intelligent, working-class Black women. That’s just how it worked out… who else would come to my pad?

So, while I was in the kitchen, what would the woman do while she waited for dinner? More than a few would burn some incense and make a little Daughters of the Dust kit. It was not my idea to use the companion book and the DVD together as a kit (or a probably-bootleg VHS tape of the PBS broadcast back in the day) together. But it was a surprise to me that some Black people actually need the book—because it has the script—to follow along the movie like a subtitles track. Not everyone of color can understand Sea Island accents.

Daughters of the Dust `Kit` Do you see the Black feminist symbolism here? Imagine this six-foot tall dark and handsome Black man in the kitchen cooking while the woman is alone in the little living room meditating on her identity with her Daughters of the Dust kit. Sounds unbelievable? Looks impossible? Well, looking back on those precious, fragile moments I can’t disagree with you because obviously I would not be here over a decade later whining and complaining about what has become of ‘my’ Black women. Another great way to ‘look back’ on a charming variation of these moments is to see “Mobolaji Olambiwonnu: Candlelight Dinner” here in the kinté space.

When I die—and supposedly my life will flash before my eyes—I am certain I will see what Julie Dash wanted me to see while I am shaking garlic powder over an old boiling pot…

Much respect, Julie Dash…