Julie Dash and the Democratic Vision of TV Movies

A still from Love Song. Three women sit at a table with drinks
MTV

In the history of film and television production, the TV movie has always been seen as the lowbrow sibling to its silver screen counterpart. According to Amanda Reyes, author of From Classy to Trashy: An Introduction to the Made for Television Movie, during its heyday, it served two purposes: to create a television event that didn’t require a lot to produce while still managing to challenge the Nielsen rating system, and to have an event that “became a looking glass into the world of genre cinema.” In the 1970s, producers sought to elicit attention with tawdry storylines while attempting to abide by rules and regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Love Song (2000)
MTV

Growing up, TV movies took over weeknights and Sunday afternoons, and a lot of them happened to be directed by Julie Dash, most well-known for her feature film Daughters of the Dust. One that constantly played on MTV was Dash’s Love Song adding to a long history of films about singers, Monica Arnold starred as Camille Livingston, who comes from a respectable upper-middle-class Black family, has a funny, smart group of friends, and a boyfriend her parents seem to adore. She’s set to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor. By doing this, she’s compromising her wants and needs for the sake of her father’s approval. Her introduction to Billy Ryan (Christian Kane) serves to introduce her true passions to the audience.

Billy and Camille begin to learn more about each other, listening to Camille’s roommate’s record collection on the floor of her apartment. They begin talking about family, and this is where the film subtly starts portraying the class differences between them. Camille talks about how she can’t see herself separate from her family while Billy expresses his frustrations with his parents and is not as forthcoming about how he was raised. The scene builds the chemistry between the two, but this moment is subsequently juxtaposed with the story of Camille’s parents’ love story.

Camille’s mother details a sweet Cyrano-esque account. She initially was helping Camille’s father write love letters to another girl, but the story culminates with her writing a love letter to him. It’s sweet — until she describes the fact her would-be partner’s parents did not approve of her because she was not light-skinned like their son’s previous girlfriend.

Julie Dash directing on set
Syzygy Management International

Hollywood has been rightly criticized for producing films that show racism being based on an individual character flaw, or centering a white protagonist that grows out of being ignorant. TV movies should not be absolved of this either, think The Color of Friendship. This scene is awkward considering classism and colorism are not comparable even though they are interrelated, for one, and secondly, the casting of colorism as an issue of the past is erroneous. But what TV movies continuously did, more so than feature films in the late ’90s, was include films helmed by Black directors and telling stories with Black characters. Feature films at the time often showed Black characters being integral to the development of their white counterpart; as seen in Far from Heaven and Finding Forrester, Black characters rarely stood alone.

After Daughters of Dust, Dash never made another feature film. For almost 30 years, like many other Black film directors after their debut features, she was not given the opportunity. She worked on smaller projects such as commercials and documentaries. Her career as an independent filmmaker includes films with predominantly or singularly black casts made for the likes of BET (My Funny Valentines) and CBS (The Rosa Parks Story). It took a long time for Dash to find the path to her sophomore feature, but it appears the director has finally been given the opportunity she deserves: directing an Angela Davis biopic for Lionsgate.

 “Whenever I do a film, it has to take us one step further to making the world safe for everyone.”

Julie Dash for the Village Voice

Despite Love Song‘s flaws — including stiff acting and awkward writing — Dash’s vision is not lost. There’s a lot of criticism lobbed at TV movies, and while not all of it is unfair, it’s worth recognizing that they were among the first that gave audiences diverse stories. Even to this day, the TV movie still carries wide appeal — even if that appeal is centered on providing cannon fodder for YouTubers.

It began with three big networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) producing their own content for a readily available audience, but the history of the TV movie has always been defined by its democratic access to stories. In a time when streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO create their own history, the impact of the TV movie should not be so easily dismissed.

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