Julie Dash's 'Daughters of the Dust' re-release

By Moira Sullivan
Yellow Mary (Barbarao)  and Trula (Trula Hoosier) on the beach of St Helena

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust made in 1991 has long been considered an extraordinary film make within a story space perfect for the range of what cinema can do beyond merely recording moving figures. It is the first feature film made by an African American woman and it is now being re-released, proving again its status as a cinema classic.

The making of Daughters of the Dust written by Dash, which includes the film script, is the filmmaker’s account of the many setbacks that occurred before the film was finished. But the film has earned its merits and its long standing following, and although it has received some new notoriety because of some of the images in Beyoncé’s Lemonade with characters dressed similar to the characters of Dash's film from the early 20th century, that music video is not and never can be Daughters of the Dust.

The film is re-released in a 4K restoration and now today’s audiences can experience its richness. Julie Dash continues to receive commemoration as she has from the beginning (best cinematography at Sundance in 1991)  for a film that the commercial film industry decided to ignore. Its film language is unconventional and it is a film that invites multiple readings because of its construction. For that reason it will always be ripe with new meaning for the spectator.

Daughters of the Dust is about the descendants of the salt water slaves from Africa, the Gullah and members of a small community on St Helena Island who have decided to go up north and leave their 88 year old matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) and remaining members behind. The Gullah settled in the coastal sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and were able to preserve their language known as Gee Chee and their traditions because of their remoteness from the mainland. These customs are shown in the film, many of which are from African spirit religion such as vessels used for the souls of the elders. The younger Gullahs have heard the oral history of their elders but they are anxious to be up north to learn new ways. This is a time after slavery in 1902 but its living presence remains in the waterways, especially a wooden statue of a slave who serves as a reminder of those who drowned at Ibo Landing rather than be enslaved.

 The film begins with the voyage of Yellow Mary (Barbarao), a woman who returns from living abroad. She is transported by a river boat by her cousin Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) dressed in the modern church going clothing of the time, and her boyfriend Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), who is a photographer. Yellow Mary is scorned by some of the inhabitants including Viola because of her lifestyle as a prostitute in Cuba. She returns with her young lover Trula (Trula Hoosier) who has very few lines in the film and who is not prepared to give up her plans to go to Nova Scotia. Trula represents the Yoruban goddess Oshun, the golden coquette according to Dash.

The story is told through the voice over of The Unborn daughter of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), and Nana Peazant. Dash proclaims that the narrative construction of conventional films is not suited for the oral traditions of Africa - that salt water slaves passed down their heritage to their enslavement lands through these stories, so the film is created with many voices that weave and join with the other passages of history. Most of the film takes place on a Sunday picnic on the beach prior to the departure of some of the settlers up north.

Dash incorporates in an authentic way the ancestry of the Gullah, the experiences of the early settlers and those that were separated from their families only to return again while other new ones set out, never to be seen again by their families. The beautiful photography is by co-producer Arthur Jaffa, and the original music is by John Barnes.

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/30/16
Movie Magazine International