Julie Dash and the Mysteries of the Celluloid Ceiling

If you’ve read any of my last few blog posts, you could probably tell that I enjoyed Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2001). It’s true. Brand now holds a very special place on my bookshelf.

Brand’s work is not explicitly theory, in a traditional sense. But that does not mean it is not theoretical.

There is theory in her narrative, in her poetry. There is theory in-between the lines.

There is theory in unexpected places. (As Dr. Boon so aptly pointed out a few months ago)

In fact, I had the pleasure of taking a feminist theory course last semester on this very topic: Finding theory in unexpected places (again, thanks to Dr. Boon!)

In this course, we had an opportunity to write a feminist detective story, using theory to help craft our characters, setting, and plot.

I wanted my story to explore the underrepresentation of women in Hollywood, specifically in roles behind the camera. Or as it is often referred to: The Celluloid Ceiling.

This has been a topic that I find myself returning to over and over again. So I thought it only fitting to make the problem of the “celluloid ceiling” the central mystery of my detective story.

Fast-forward a few weeks and I am deeper into the research side of my story. It was time to add some theoretical meat to my narrative skeleton, so to speak.

While browsing some feminist film theory articles, I came across one in particular that caught my eye. It was Judylyn S. Ryan’s ” Outing the Black Feminist Filmmaker in Julie Dash’s Illusions” (2004), which explores the role of race and identity not only on camera, but behind it as well.

Illusions, set in 1942 Hollywood, follows Mignon Duprée, a black woman who secures an executive position at National Studios because she can ‘pass’ as white. It explores the tensions between illusions and reality, which are in constant play within the film industry, as well as the issues of racism and sexism within Hollywood, and the United States more broadly.

Illusions accomplishes several goals. As a manifesto, alternating among the discourses of history, logic, and prophecy, it recasts Black women’s vocal contribution to American film history, measures the cost and terms of that participation, imagines expanded roles and greater agency for Black women in film, facilitates Black women’s self-empowerment through film, and, in encouraging new modes of critical viewing, provides a new paradigm for constructing interpretive agency” (Ryan 1341).


I was captivated, and I had not even seen the film yet.

I immediately started looking more into the work of Julie Dash. I learned that she was the first African American, female filmmaker to have a feature film released theatrically. That film was Daughters of the Dust (1991).

Set in 1902, Daughters follows three generations of Gullah women, descendants of former slaves, living on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina as they prepare to migrate north and settle on the U.S. mainland.

 I thought to myself: how have I not heard of Julie Dash after studying films academically for the past five years?

Does the celluloid ceiling still haunt those who have broke through?


Mignon Dupree (Lonette McKee) and Esther Jeeter (Rosanne Katon) in Julie Dash’s Illusions. Women Make Movies, 1982.

After this introspective hiatus via my detective story, I began to think again to my thesis. Well, here was a filmmaker whose work touched on nearly all of my research interests: identity, race, gender, migration, memory, history, and life writing.

I was even finding connections to the work of Dionne Brand through Black, feminist, geographies!

I felt like my research was finally falling into place. Before, it was as if I had pieces of a puzzle, but was having trouble picturing the final image. Now, I can see it much more clearly (even if the pieces still need to be assembled).

Research is not always chronologically convenient, but moments like these are always worth the wait. Sometimes we have to change gears if we want to go forward.

Isn’t it wonderfully surprising where a feminist detective story can take you? Not only in fiction, but also in ‘real life’?


Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

Illusions. Directed by Julie Dash. Women Make Movies, 1982.

Lauzen, Martha. “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on     the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2015.” Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2016, http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/research/.

Ryan, Judylyn S. “Outing the Black Feminist Filmmaker in Julie Dash’s Illusions.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 30, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1319-1344, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/421884.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017


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