The second life of Julie Dash’s ‘Daughters of the Dust’

Daughters of the Dust (1991) has gone down in history as a unique, striking and decolonized depiction of a slice of African-American life at the beginning of the last century. The film, which took more than 15 years to make, was the first by an African-American woman director to get national distribution in 1992. Julie Dash also produced and wrote the film.

Last year, 25 years after its release, Daughters of the Dust, was digitalized, restored and colour graded under the supervision of the film’s cinematographer, Arthur Jafa. The grading, Dash has told, resulted in the film regaining its originally intended luster, which was lost in the transfer to big-screen format.

Since then it has experienced a revival of sorts. Recently, it was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Even more, the singer Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade borrows liberally from Dash. The director, Melina Matsoukas, who directed the music video for “Formation,” the first single on Lemonade, hired Arthur Jafa as cinematographer.

Daughters of the Dust unfolds on St. Simon island, Georgia – home to the Peazants, a Gullah-family descending mainly from West Africa. At Igbo Landing, where they live, a group of captured men and women committed mass suicide after a slave ship revolt in 1803. Dash’s story evolves 99 years later, when most of the family are preparing to leave for a more progressive and modern North.

The past is just a prologue, says Viola Peazant early on in the film. She is a missionary, who returns home, accompanied by a photographer to witness the remarkable event. Among the characters are also Viola’s grandmother, Nana, whose ties to departed family members are as strong as her bonds to the living. The matriarch worries about the leavers trading their rich history for the dream of prosperity. Nana’s granddaughter-in-law Haagar disagrees. She wants to offer her daughters futures relieved of the burden of the family’s history.

Daughters of the Dust is narrated by Nana’s unborn grandchild, daughter-to-be of Eli and Eula, a couple haunted by trauma and doubts about each other, the unborn child and whether to leave. The playful Eula is close to another relative, Yellow Mary, who like Viola has returned from the mainland to mark the event. Unlike Viola, who worships God and modernity, the urbane Mary, marked by exploitation and violence, relies on neither authorities nor illusions. She defends both Nana and Eula, whose ways of being (women) do not live up to Viola and Haadar’s rigid standards.

Without getting stuck in binary oppositions between past and future, progress and stagnation, peace and conflict, or even the living and the dead (and unborn), Dash depicts seclusion both as protection and isolation. She deals with collective and individual memories and how they shape us. Her film language is poetic and ambiguous – a style further enhanced by the choice not to subtitle the film, despite the Gullah dialect at times being difficult to understand, even for first-language English speakers.

Although Daughters of the Dust unfolds on a small island inhabited by mainly one family, the film is transgressive. At a glance, Viola and Haadar’s worship of what they regard as civilization can be viewed as the servility that Bob Marley warned about. A more interesting interpretation reads them as rebels claiming self-realization, for themselves and their daughters. The living, the dead and the yet to be born are interdependent and inseparable. The islanders, who originate from the mainland as well as from another continent, are both restricted and strengthened by generations of individual and collective experience. Christianity is tied together with Islam and the diverse group of people who came to the country as slaves, along with America’s tyrannized and equally diverse indigenous peoples.

Dash aimed to reflect overlooked aspects of American life and experiences. Through extremely careful lighting and lingering shots, she and cinematographer Jafa let the camera capture faces, without obfuscating or distorting. Color and wardrobe choices render the characters beautiful and dignified, while the recurring indigo blue also symbolizes the suffering inflicted by slavery. The glaring sunlight and beautiful landscape are radical breaks from the darkness that literally and metaphorically tend to dominate cinematic depictions of African-American life.

In interviews, Dash explained that she aimed for a “foreign” aesthetic – the choice of word, interestingly reflecting the insular American outlook and tone that she avoids in her filmmaking. She has also referred to her cinematic language as “Griot-style”, which locates her source of inspiration in West Africa.

Daughters of the Dust was showered with praise in 1991, among others by film critic Roger Ebert, who described the film as “a tone poem of old memories.” The film won the award for best cinematography at Sundance and, in 2004, was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as the only film out of 700 made by an African-American female director.

The film was re-released in November 2016. The timing for the 2016 re-release was fortuitous for several reasons, including the cinematic coincidence, which saw the film regaining its intended luster just as a leadership is announced, which better than in a long time reflects the intention behind the birth of the American nation. Dash’s epic returns at a time when there is a need to supplement the civic activism represented by Black Lives Matter. To loosen the boundaries between the political, the spiritual and the sensual is crucial when political burnout is imminent.

Another coincidence, illustrative of Dash’s foresight, is its re-release almost alongside Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. All three films are made by visionary, rebellious, but non-reactive directors, who aim to level the US socio-political playing field by redefining it altogether.

In Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin invites white Americans to think about why they needed to create a “negro” to begin with. In the multi-Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins redefines black masculinity in the depictions of Chiron’s and Kevin’s relationship and of Mahershala Ali’s Oscar-awarded drug dealer – one of the most cliché-ridden characters in film history.

Dash paid a high professional price not to succumb to the racist and misogynist requirements that still dictate how such oppression ought to be depicted and fought in a commercially viable manner. Unlike Haile Gerima (another member of the group known as ‘The LA Rebellion’), who in his film Sankofa (1993) portrays a slave rebellion, Dash does not does not concern herself with direct representations of violence and oppressors. And unlike Spike Lee, she skips hyper-masculine elements of rebellion and norms-criticism.

Dash’s reappearance in the limelight is a beautiful reminder that Ava DuVernay and others are not exceptions, but part of a line of African American woman filmmakers. Dash, without fault, acknowledges everyone who influenced her, and even Beyoncé for the marketing push.

The best that could happen to anyone who is interested in truly independent cinema and change we actually can believe in, is that Dash will get to make a second feature film; one which will help expand our understanding of emancipation.

* This is an edited version of an article that was first published online in Swedish by the Swedish film journal, FLM.

Katarina Hedrén

Katarina Hedrén, based in Johannesburg, writes about film for Africa is a Country.

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