Daughters of the Dust
Directed by Julie Dash
Starring: Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Barbara O, Kaycee Moore, Cheryl Lynn Bruce
It is the first theatrically released film directed by a black woman. …Yep, you read the release date above correctly. After pitching the project to multiple studios and being told that “the public doesn’t want to see those kind of stories,” Dash appealed to PBS, who fronted her $800,000. The result was a Sundance hit a full year before the likes of Quinten Tarantino and Kevin Smith conquered the festival. Daughters of the Dust was nominated for the Grand Jury prize and won Best Cinematography, prompting Kino International to distribute it. The movie holds a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2004 for its “evocative, emotional look at family, era and place.”
Like last week, Daughters of the Dust hits multiple recent themes Oblogatory has explored, from–
–scoring number 60 on the magazine’s 2022 list. It’s like this film was tailor-made for Oblogatory to review! (I swear that I hadn’t even heard of it six weeks ago.)
Ibo’s Landing on Dataw Island off the coast of Georgia has been home to the Peazant family, as well as the Gullah (Geechee) people since slave ships brought their ancestors over to the United States. Bilal Muhammad, a Peazant family cousin was even brought over on the last ship, The Wanderer.
The movie begins in August 1902 with cousins Viola and “Yellow” Mary returning to the island to have a family supper before they guide the majority of their relatives to a better life in The North. Distressed by this is Nana Peazant, the family matriarch and one of the island’s last faithful practitioners of “the old ways,” a uniquely local combination of English Creole, ancestral Ibo African heritage, and Hoodoo religious rituals.
Anxious to depart, however, are expecting parents Eli and Eula. For them, this island is home to nothing but superstition and memories of Eula’s rape by a white man. The bitter widow Hagaar is also ready to leave the past behind but can’t leave her judgmental nature. She’ll need to do the latter in order to accomplish the former.
Watching on as all of these islanders tell their stories and bear their wounds is Eli and Eula’s unborn child. She narrates the film as the audience watches the Peazant family members each make an impossible decision: retain their culture or offer their loved ones a better life.
I cannot speak on the black, female, or Gullah experience portrayed, yet I found myself identifying with many aspects of the story. I resonate with a recent Quinta Brunson response when she was asked why her breakout show Abbott Elementary included so many Philadelphia-local references: “I believe that the more specific your story is, the more universal it becomes.”
Grandmothers worrying about the old ways dying, victims of abuse unable to avoid small-town gossip, town misfits painted as “heathens” over trivial differences–these issues could easily describe my parents’ hometown communities. These human experiences, when stirred in the gumbo pot of this island’s culture, create an irresistible flavor with soul-nourishing results.
Also lovingly prepared and presented are the hair, makeup, costumes, and production design. These teams worked magic to make a film this detailed and authentic on such a small budget.
Likewise, the performances are undeniably powerful. Cora Lee Day presides over a staggeringly deep bench of talent, and each actor takes moments to shine without stealing anyone else’s spotlight. Further praise of Ms. Day must be mentioned here because of her ability to enliven a three-dimensional character who, in lesser hands, could have come off as a “magical Black grandma” stereotype. Instead, she’s desperately trying to keep herself from breaking, using the meaning behind her rituals to keep both her ancestors and descendants close. The intricacies within Day’s performance choices went (unfortunately, though unsurprisingly) unrecognized in her time, but I hope more people discover her work and come to value her talent.
Frustratingly, Daughters of the Dust clouds its own ingenious vision when it refuses to commit to its inventive structure and drifts from a steady focal point.
Firstly, the screenplay was a collaboration by women who came up in the stage-play world. As such, Daughters uses play conventions of its time to tell its narrative. Cinema, however, is NOT theatre, and, though the movie features cinematography worth championing, dramatic moments are often undercut by redundant narration, needless monologues, and obtuse presentation.
Here, I must iterate that Daughters of the Dust employs experimental narrative choices that, while occasionally confusing, often pay off brilliantly. I am NOT criticizing the cultural immersion, character voices, or flashback structure on display. Those portions of the film are wildly creative, and the fact that the entertainment industry never gave Julie Dash an opportunity to refine these techniques is a crime I hope will be rectified before she retires.
My disappointment, rather, stems from the film’s half measures. The unborn child, while intermittently important, narrates story points that don’t need clarifying, yet the audience is unmoored regarding the family’s internal relationships and hierarchy. I didn’t figure out that Mary’s companion was her lover until an hour into the movie! A Native American character’s declaration of love to one of the Peazant great-granddaughters fell flat to me because I didn’t know it would mean the widow Hagaar would lose yet another child. I thought Viola already lived on the island and was surprised that her fervent Christian beliefs had stood alongside Nana’s Hoodoo practices for so long without issue. They hadn’t. Nana’s discomfort at Viola teaching the island children Sunday-school lessons makes a lot more sense now.
In my opinion, Daughters of the Dust only finds its most effective entry point in the final 30 minutes via a photographer. He interviews each subject as he takes pictures, and we find the historical context for the personal drama. As more people are photographed, we see the stories interplay and understand why the islanders act the way they do, empathizing with each citizen when they are hurt because we now know even more than their neighbors do. Had this device been introduced at the beginning, the audience would’ve developed an appreciation for Ibo’s Landing like he did, and the Creole language and magical realism would’ve harmonized within the experience rather than created dissonance.
Ultimately, I think I would have a greater appreciation for this movie upon a second viewing seeing as I was able to make sense of it towards the end. Like the emigrating Peazant family members, however, it’ll be a long time before I return.
My gut reaction is no, but I suspect that the closer one lives to the Georgia/South Carolina island chain where this movie takes place, the more the viewer will appreciate the piece.
Overall, though, Daughters of the Dust is not a picture with mainstream appeal. Its pacing is (by its own summary’s admission) languid, its narrative challenging, and its purpose niche.
Even if a casual viewer were able to surmount all of that, the film’s score is… unfortunate. Traditional African instruments are fused with early synthesizer machines to represent the old ways merging with the new. A noble intention in 1991 to be sure, but it has not aged well, coming off as a chintzy–even mocking–approximation of culturally important sounds.
Encapsulated, Daughters of the Dust is a flawed, volatile, sensitive look at family and culture dynamics that is nigh incomprehensible to those not intimately aware of the people and context it portrays–so basically any family dinner. Maybe Quinta Brunson was onto something…