DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

  • Director: Julie Dash
  • Writer: Julie Dash
  • Starring: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrhamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Tommy Hicks, Bahni Turpin, M. Cochise Anderson, and Cornell Royal
  • Accolades: Shown at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Kanopy (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The best thing about Daughters of the Dust is that it has a time and place that it shares with no other movie, and seems to deeply understand not just the surface of that time and place but the deep emotions that it evokes. It takes place on a South Carolina barrier island in 1902, in a “Gullah” colony. This culture, which still exists today, is made up of the descendants of Africans brought to America as slaves, who through a combination of isolation and circumstances managed to hang on to a version of their original African culture through the centuries. They even speak a “creole” language that is based on, but isn’t quite, English, with bits of various African and other languages mixed in. In 1902, much of this community to head north, and some already have, but some are staying behind.

Daughters of the Dust is a very specific, immersive experience, but not one that always makes linear sense. Roger Ebert compared the feeling to being a kid at a family picnic, catching snatches of conversations without really understanding them, but also not really caring that you don’t understand. That’s probably a nice way of putting it. This effect is added to by the general impenetrability of the accents of most of the characters. Relatively little of the dialogue is actually in the Gullah language, and we get subtitles when it is, but when the story is in English the dialogue is almost as impenetrable. Director Julie Dash was unwilling to sacrifice accuracy in the name of comprehensibility. She does not give us a linear narrative, either. Dash said that she felt that what she called the “typical male-oriented western-narrative structure” was inappropriate for the movie, instead letting the story reveal itself and then loop back in a manner not so dissimilar from real-life Gullah storytellers. 

As such, Daughters of the Dust feels, for better or worse, like a dream. Honestly there are so many sisters and cousins in the extended “Peazant family” that I mostly lost track of who was who, and came to the conclusion that it didn’t particularly matter. A handful of characters and their stories come into slightly sharper focus. Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) tries desperately to keep the connection to the ancestors alive, which leads to conflict with some of the grandkids back from Philadelphia who don’t think the old ways can coexist with modern christianity. “Yellow Mary” (Barbara O) shows up to visit her sisters from the city, but brings another woman (Trula Hoosier) in tow. Many of the other women shun her or angrily accuse her of being “ruined,” but I couldn’t quite understand what was going on. Subsequent research has revealed that the woman she brings with her is her lover. This does not go over well with the family. There is also a photographer (Tommy Hicks), there to take pictures of the locals before their culture disappears.

In one of the movie’s most affected affectations, there is sporadic narration by “the Unborn Child” (Kay-Lynn Warren) who seems to be a future child of two of the characters. She occasionally appears running through the edges of the frame, then disappearing. She sprints in front of a group photograph of the men of the community, but when we actually see the photo she’s not there. She is the continuity from the ancestors to the future. Or something.

The aesthetic of Daughters of the Dust is very specific, all women in white dresses dancing in circles in a verdant landscape. This imagery, and the movie more in general, gained a renewed and wider audience a few years ago when Beyonce released her “visual album” Lemonade, which apparently heavily featured extremely similar imagery. She also told anyone who would listen how much she was influenced by the movie, so that helped too, I suppose. It points to another success of the film, and that is its ability to instill in a viewer that, though not rich in material goods or wealth, this is a culture that is worth keeping alive. In a narrative like this one, where the central conflict is between the old world and the new, where some stories will fall down is by just assuming that the old world is worth hanging on to. I personally think you actually have to make the case for that, to at least show us what we might be losing. Daughters of the Dust gets us there without seeming to expend a lot of effort in the process. 

The film was the full-length debut of director Julie Dash. She went to UCLA film school with Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, among others, and is thus often listed as part of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement of Black filmmakers. Her focus has been different than some of her contemporaries, however. Dash is herself of Gullah heritage, and received a Guggenheim Grant to study Gullah culture. Originally intending to make a short film, she concluded she had too much material and instead created her first feature. Since the late 1990s, finding herself unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, shut out of the mainstream studio system, Dash has worked primarily for television. Perhaps her best known work was a 2002 biopic of Rosa Parks for CBS, starring Angela Bassett as Parks. When people talk regretfully about the great films we have missed because the movie industry was for so long dominated by white men, Julie Dash is one of the people they are talking about.

Still, we have Daughters of the Dust, which feels like a great work that I am not quite in a position to fully appreciate. Even with subtitles turned on, its meandering style and the way it is told through a series of vignettes prevented me from having a great sense of what was going on. To some degree, this is clearly intentional. This is more an experience than a straightforward story, but it is likely a worthwhile experience.

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