in Criterion Month

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Here’s the truth: this is my fifth post this week. We only did our Criterion Month draft a week before this marathon started. I’m lazy (in general, but especially when it comes to watching good, complicated movies). There was basically no chance Daughters of the Dust was going to get anything but one of my signature late night hot take. Which was frustrating when I went to watch it earlier tonight, as I was so hyped up by how often it and producer-writer-director Julie Dash came up in my research into the other movies I covered this month. It became maddening when the credits finally rolled and I discovered this is exactly the type of film that demands you spend some time dwelling on it. But it’s already after midnight and there’s nothing I can do, so here’s my ill-advised first impressions of Daughters of the Dust.

The first thing you need to know about Daughters of the Dust is its historical setting. The Gullah are people who live on the coast and islands off of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Due to the climate and an isolationist history, a unique culture was able to develop in this region that maintains African customs. And if your mind works the same way mind does, let me tell you that yes, one of the sea islands, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, is the inspiration for Nick Jr’s Gullah Gullah Island. Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 and follows several generations of the Peazant family as they gather for perhaps the last time before many of them leave to move to the north.

At the top of the family tree is Nana (Cora Lee Day), who absolutely refuses to leave the island and wants to instill in her grandchildren a strong sense of tradition. Her counterpart is her granddaughter-in-law, Haagar (Kaycee Moore), who is leading the migration despite her own daughter’s (Bahni Turpin) desire to stay. Nana’s granddaughter, Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), had already moved to Philadelphia and is returning to her home having become a devout Christian. Joining Viola is her sister Yellow Mary (Barbarao), who is bringing back her partner, Trula (Trula Hoosier), with whom she plans to move to Nova Scotia. Nana’s grandson, Eli (Adisa Anderson), is a deeply conflicted man, unsure whether he and his wife Eula (Alva Rogers) should leave. A rift has formed between them because Eula was raped and is now pregnant, the unborn child (Kay-Lynn Warren) serves as a narrator and symbol of the everlasting impact of ancestry.

The whole story unfolds over little more than a day, as the family reconvenes, spends time together, has a feast, and then separates. But as you can probably tell by the confusing nature of that last paragraph, there’s a lot going on here and it doesn’t play out in a straightforward way. Not quite told in vignettes, the film often inter-cuts between scenes, lingers on moments that seem out of time, and transitions between dialogue and monologue without notice. For me it transitioned between sublimely dreamlike and outright disorienting. This was a deliberate choice by Dash, who explained she wanted to work outside a typical male-oriented western narrative structure and instead tell a story that “unfolds and comes back. It’s a different way of telling a story. It’s totally different, new.” Which she did. It’s hard to think of a comparison; Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-wai, and Abbas Kiarostami come to mind but all are imperfect parallels. I don’t know what to say except try to enjoy the lingering beauty and don’t expect Daughters of the Dust to do any of the work for you.

One topic that the characters often return to is Igbo Landing and the story of a group of people who had managed to take control of their slave ship. What happened next depends on who you ask; some say they committed mass suicide, others say they walked on the water back to Africa, and a few even say they flew away. This tale is arguably the most famous cultural export of the sea islands, as its an event that’s been referenced by Song of Solomon, Roots, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and even Black Panther. For that reason it sticks out, and moreso because I’m strongly inclined to look forward rather than backward. I sympathize with the characters that look forward to new opportunities naturally, but Nana’s devotion to tradition gains a lot more power with historical context.

So, Julie Dash. She’s another LA Rebellion filmmaker, having earned her MFA from the UCLA Film School in 1985. Daughters of the Dust was her first film and also the first feature directed by an African American woman to obtain a wide theatrical release in the country. She based the screenplay on stories from her father’s family, who had migrated to New York around the time that the movie is set. This film was not an easy one to make, as Dash couldn’t secure funding from Hollywood and eventually was able to get a small budget of $800,000 from PBS anthology American Playhouse. She shot on location at St. Helena Island, which they had to evacuate at one point due to it being in the projected path of Hurricane Hugo. The crew relocated to Charleston and then the hurricane changed track and leveled the city.

Fortunately, Daughters of the Dust showed well at Sundance, which paved the way for its historic release. It would go on to preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and serve as a strong influence of the visuals of the aforementioned Lemonade visual album. But the striking originality of the film put a damper of Dash’s cinematic career, as she was always considered to far outside the mainstream. Dash found success elsewhere, directing music videos, episodes of TV shows, and even a few made-for-TV movies, such as the the 1999 Alfre Woodard drama Funny Valentines and 2002 Angela Bassett Rosa Parks biopic The Rosa Parks Story. The best part is that, for once, I get to end one of these on a happy note, as it was announced at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival that Lionsgate would be producing a new feature of Dash’s, a movie about civil rights icon Angela Davis. I just hope that’s still happening despite this whole mess we’re in now. Dash deserves it, she already beat a hurricane.