#214) Daughters of the Dust (1991)

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#214) Daughters of the Dust (1991)

OR “No Family Is An Island”

Directed & Written by Julie Dash

Class of 2004

The Plot: “Daughters of the Dust” is a fictional account of the Gullah people, a culture of African-Americans descended from slaves, living on St. Helena Island – just off the coast of South Carolina – isolated from white influence. In 1902, the Peazant family gathers together for one last meal before moving to the mainland for better opportunities. The family matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) refuses to go and insists on holding onto the family’s deep spiritual roots, while her granddaughter-in-law Haagar (Kaycee Moore) is leading the charge to migrate and abandoning everything about the island. Among the other family members are Christian convert Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), free-spirit Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), and conflicted Eli (Adisa Anderson), whose wife Eula (Alva Rogers) was raped and may be carrying an illegitimate child. This “Unborn Child” (Kay-Lynn Warren), serves as the film’s narrator, linking the family’s past, present, and future.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a poetic, impressionistic collage of gorgeous colors, music and imagery”, and points out the film’s claim-to-fame as “the first feature-length film by an African-American woman to receive a wide theatrical release.”

But Does It Really?: When determining a film’s preservation worthiness, I ask the same question: What piece of ground does this film stand on that no other film does? In the case of “Daughters of the Dust” it not only stands on unique ground, but a whole unique island. Aided by the history and customs of the Gullah people, “Daughters of the Dust” is a unique look at a culture of America that tends to be ignored, presented in a refreshingly unconventional way. It can be difficult to understand at times, but once you let yourself give into the film, it immerses you into its world. Its daring point-of-view and historical significance for African-American filmmakers earns “Daughters of the Dust” an uncontested place on the NFR. If you’re uncultured about the Gullah (like me), do a little bit of research and familiarize yourself with some of the basics. It will help your viewing immensely.

Everybody Gets One: Julie Dash spent the better part of 15 years trying to get this film made, basing the script not only on her research, but also on her father’s own experience with his Gullah family migrating to the mainland. “Daughters of the Dust” is the only NFR appearance for practically everyone in the cast, most of whom were/still are New York-based stage actors.

Wow, That’s Dated: That synthesizer score is very ‘90s. Julie Dash also loves the freeze-frame slow-motion move that I always associate with the early ‘90s.

Take a Shot: No one says the title, but the real drinking game is whenever anyone swats away a mosquito or gnat during a take. No wonder they want to leave the island.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Daughters of the Dust”. The Academy was too busy snubbing “Malcolm X”.

Other notes

  • First off, a confession. Julie Dash has said she intentionally did not subtitle the film because she wanted the audience to listen to the characters’ thick Creole accents, an experience akin to watching a foreign film. Forgoing Ms. Dash’s advice, I put the subtitles on about 20 minutes in. I still didn’t pick up everything, but I got a better understanding of what was going on, albeit at the expense of immersing myself in the Gullah dialect.
  • My main takeaway from “Daughters of the Dust” was its perception of culture. The Peazant family runs the gamut from those who embrace the ways of their ancestors to those who have abandoned it completely, and everything in-between. The importance of preserving culture is stressed, but at the same time, any culture has to evolve or it will die. It all comes down to how much weight you want to carry on your shoulders going forward.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer/Julie Dash’s then-husband Arthur Jafa. There are some beautiful compositions throughout that really showcase the island as a living, breathing part of this family’s life. Apparently Jafa wasn’t able to bring a generator onto St. Simons Island, so he had to rely on natural light for every scene. Take that, “The Revenant”!
  • As tough as it was for me to crack this film’s outer shell, I still enjoyed it and ultimately gave a damn about these characters. The film’s pacing clips along well enough, though it does start to unravel near the end when everyone starts hysterically monologing at each other.

Legacy

  • Following the success of “Daughters of the Dust” Julie Dash’s film career…never really took off. Hollywood found the film “too different” and kept Julie from making the leap to mainstream movies. Dash has, however, been consistently working over the last 30 years, directing primarily for television, most notably the much more conventional “The Rosa Parks Story”.
  • Did you know Julie Dash also directed the music video for Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason”?
  • Julie Dash penned two books about “Daughters of the Dust”: one on the making of the film, and the other a novel set 20 years after the film’s events.
  • Dash’s film career didn’t take off, but at least she opened the door for the likes of Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees.
  • Is this where we get “Gullah Gullah Island” from? This culture was right in front of me this whole time!
  • You might not have seen the movie, but you’ve definitely seen its influence. The visual style of “Daughters of the Dust” is referenced throughout Beyonce’s “Lemonade”.

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