Older, Wiser, Stronger
It wasn’t until the Siskel Center announced a new restoration of Daughters of the Dust that I’d even heard of Julie Dash’s stunning 1991 film, and that’s to my great regret and embarrassment. Released by the New York Film Forum in a beautiful new print to commemorate its 25th anniversary — though, as we’ll discuss, not the anniversary of its conception — it’s one of the most powerful and skillful films that I’ve seen in ages, and the fact that it’s such a relatively obscure one, little seen and even less discussed in the annals of great contemporary American cinema, is a testament to the ongoing racism and sexism that the industry still hasn’t managed to solve to this day.
Daughters of the Dust concerns itself with the Peazant family, a group of Gullahs living on one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina around the turn of the 20th century. Having lived in relative isolation from the mainland for generations, a number of the Peazants have determined to abandon their traditional home and head for the mainland, where they believe there will be more opportunity for them; but for others, particularly the proud matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), leaving the island is tantamount to heresy, a desertion not only of a geographical place but of a culture, a language, and a way of life.
There isn’t much to Daughters of the Dust in the way of plot. It takes place over a few days as the Peazants prepare to take a small boat to the mainland; they have hired a photographer, Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) to document some of their folkways, and a few arguments break out over history, religion, familial and generational tensions, and the past and future of the Gullah people. But for the most part, the film is an elegy, a poem, a waking dream of such transcendent beauty that it seems almost impossible that Hollywood did not immediately seize on Dash’s tremendous talents. While it unfolds with an almost surreal elegance, the film is distinctly rooted in a realistic depiction of the life of this unique group of people: they speak in the memorable Gullah dialect (which is left, for the most part, untranslated, for the viewer to pick up on), their hands bear the stains of a lifetime of dyeing cloth, their homes and clothes and tools are historical objects, or re-creations painstakingly built by Dash and her crew. This is all depicted with such lushness and perfection it is almost unbelievable that it was accomplished at all, let alone on what was a minuscule budget even by standards of the time.
The richness of the society depicted in Daughters of the Dust is one that must be seen to be believed; after two hours in its presence, it simultaneously seems as familiar as one’s own life and so complex it could never really be known to an outsider. Dash’s film is just that accomplished, with its brilliant editing and nearly perfect rhythms. Without an overabundance of exposition or a clumsy narrative — the usual pitfalls of such a document — we are made to understand, through the lens of a single family and those around them, the entirety of a vibrant and colorful culture. We experience the patterns of their daily lives without being privy to the greater context in which it takes place; we see the intertwining and unraveling of a host of religious values — Muslim, Christian, voodoo, and tribal — that clash without ever coming to violence, and blend without ever creating a syncretic whole.
Daughters of the Dust is also very expressly and explicitly a feminist film; it is a film about women, if not, as we normally understand the term, a ‘women’s movie’. The primary speaking parts all belong to women, and the conversations between them, the social tensions among them, and the way their roles impact their society, are filtered through a female perspective that is both undeniable and undogmatic. Dash steadfastly resists preaching (even when her script puts words in the mouth of a preacher); she pulls off the nearly impossible feat of never seeming to side too much with one character, one point of view, or one moral position, in a film that is all about the moral positioning of people who have been treated immorally. It is well and truly a film about a people, not just about people, and it places a huge vale on communal existence and the way that coming together and living with one another is what creates our shared existence. It picks up the gauntlet of neo-realism (and of the categorically black and West Coast expression of it developed by the so-called “L.A. Rebellion” filmmakers of the 1970s) and takes it in a rewarding direction that far too few directors have had the vision or the inclination to follow.
There are so many more things about this remarkable film to praise: the incredible cinematography by Arthur Jafa, then Dash’s husband; the rich, evocative, sinewy score by John Barnes; the meticulous craftsmanship of the costumes, props, and set design, all presented against location filming that is nothing short of spectacular; the performance by a cast of unknowns and veteran black character actors, not one of which is less than excellent; the overall tone that what we are experiencing is a mystical revelation, the dream of an entire people. At no point does Dash deign to hold the audience’s hand throughout the film’s unconventional structure, which combines the artfulness of European masters with the rhythms of American mavericks.
But no degree of unconventionality in this utterly rewarding movie can explain the blunt fact that Dash was largely left behind by the motion picture industry, and that’s what makes it especially melancholy. It’s disgraceful enough that Hollywood took eighty years to allow a feature film by an African-American woman to be released in the first place, and doubly so that so few have followed in its wake; it is inconceivable that a white male director displaying this level of genius would have been so immediately forsaken. It has become customary for us to think that filmmakers of color should be ‘rewarded’ for breaking through by giving them the chair in some blockbuster genre franchise series; Daughters of the Dust is a reminder that such filmmakers have been with us all along, and it is our great shame that we did not reward them for creating far more meaningful and personal art.