Five Questions With: Dr. Hilary Jones

This Thursday, September 20, FIU teams up with the Historic Hampton House for a special screening of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, with discussion led by Dr. Hilary Jones of the History and Africa & African Diaspora Studies programs at FIU. Part of the Unity Boulevard Film Series at the Hampton House, this screening is free to students with ID, with $5 advanced tickets for others. We asked Dr. Jones about the screening, the series, and the relationship between film and historical research.

1. As a faculty member whose research and teaching embrace history, African and African diaspora studies, and women’s and gender studies, how would you describe the cultural importance of Daughters of the Dust?

Dr. Jones: Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is simply a unique film. Very few dramatic films show the connection between Africa and the African Diaspora while placing black women at the center of the story. It is culturally important for these reasons. It is also significant because the film captures the emotions of African Americans in the U.S. South who were faced with leaving the place they called home as they left for the mainland in the Great Migration north at the turn of the twentieth century. Even though this home was forged through slavery, the characters represent the deep connection of the Gullah to the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia and the pain of losing their connection to their language, cultural traditions, and extended family. It is a migration story that reflects on the past and what will happen for future generations.

2. What are your thoughts about the clear impact Daughters of the Dust had on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade and the subsequent theatrical re-release of Julie Dash’s film?

Dr. Jones: I think it is fabulous that Beyoncé’s Lemonade introduced a new generation to Daughters of the Dust. In a 2016 Vanity Fair interview Julie Dash wrote that what was so compelling to her about Lemonade is that it brought back visual images of black women and African American life that she had not seen on screen for a long time and it confirmed for her that these “visual metaphors” are necessary to re-frame our understanding of what African American “creole culture” is or was about. Clearly Julie Dash received Lemonade enthusiastically. While Lemonade is not Daughters of the Dust, I would have liked to hear Beyoncé or her production team acknowledge the film as inspiration for the video and to explain for her audience how she sees the film as fitting in with the album/video. Is it a sequel to the Gullah migration of 1902 or the voice of a new generation? Dash has written a novel that is a sequel to Daughters of the Dust but has been unable to get Hollywood financing to make the film. Perhaps, the appeal of the video and the fact that the remastered and re-released version of the film had been set to release around the same time that Lemonade came out will demonstrate the audience demand for a sequel to Daughters of the Dust.

3. This event is part of the partnership you have built between FIU and the Historic Hampton House for the Unity Boulevard Film Series on the Black Experience. How did this partnership come about?

Dr. Jones:FIU’s History Department has worked with the Historic Hampton House on a number of projects. Professor Kenneth Lipartito serves as Co-PI with me on the grant. For this project, FIU’s AADS Program and the History Department worked with the Historic Hampton House and the Miami Jazz and Film Society on a proposal to develop a year-long film series centered on the African and African American experience. We sought to emphasize works by African and African American filmmakers. The Knight Foundation selected the Unity Boulevard Film Series project as an awardee for a 2018 Miami Knight Arts Challenge grant. As a faculty member in History and African and African Diaspora Studies, this project has allowed me to bring FIU students and faculty together with a community institution like the Historic Hampton House. I imagine this will be the start of a fruitful conversation that will continue for some time to come.

4. How is film important in your chosen fields of study?

Dr. Jones: What an insightful question! Film is critical to the work that historians do. We do not serve as literary or film critics. A historian’s approach to film more often looks to films as a means to illustrate the past or generate new ways of thinking about the past. I don’t think all historians would critique a film for its historical accuracy. Movies are fictional. However, a film like Daughters of the Dust can help historians explore topics like the survival of African cultural practices in the Americas, in which we may actually have only few sources of documentary evidence. Additionally, the Unity Boulevard Film Series will screen documentaries. For example, in October we will show Finding Fela! (About the life and impact of Nigerian Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti). In November Professor Daniel Royles will lead a discussion of Marlon Riggs’ documentary Tongues Untied, on the experience of black gay men in the U.S. Dr. Danielle Clealand, Political Science, will lead a discussion of the documentary Raza on race and racism in Cuba. Documentaries are also important because they provide historical context about an individual’s life and bring our attention to relevant topics that may deserve more careful examination by historians and other scholars.

5. Just a fun question: what are your 3 favorite movies?

Dr. Jones: I am an African Studies scholar and historian so my three favorite movies all have something to do with Africa or the African Diaspora and African and African American filmmaking. In terms of a Hollywood feature film, I loved The Visitor starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira about a college professor who strikes up a friendship with a young African couple who move into his New York city apartment.Second, I’d have to include a film by a Senegalese filmmaker since I lived there and it relates closely to my research. I would say either Ousmane Sembene’s Ceedo or Djibril Diop Mambetéy, La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun). Finally, I recently saw Queen of Katwe about a young Ugandan girl who became a chess phenomenon.It is wonderful. Although you gave me only three choices, I’m adding a fourth- Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust because it will forever be a favorite of mine.

This event is FREE for students with ID. Advance tickets are $5 and tickets at the door are $10. You can find tickets here.

Khadijah Brown is an English Major at FIU  pursing a Certificate in Film studies.