Classic Movie Review: Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Daughters of the Dust is about a multigenerational African-American family at the beginning of the 20th Century. They are going to make their way north, away from the sea islands of South Carolina and their Gullah ancestry. The film is written and directed by Julie Dash and stars Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, and Barbarao (sometimes credited as Barbara O).

This is a film that's hard to get into. I don't mean it as it's poorly made or boring, but it requires a bit more cultural foreknowledge than a typical film. I now understand and can sympathize with people who have no comics or superhero background and attempt to keep up with the Marvel and DC film universes. The best films, though, can draw you in no matter what is presented and that is what Daughters of the Dust does.

There are title cards at the beginning to give a little historical background on the setting. The groups of African slaves brought here, not being on the mainland and much more isolated, kept many of their tribal traditions, beliefs and language and passed it down to their children. This is a narrative so rarely seen. Our film history is filled with the homogenized version of slavery as it being virtually the same in every corner of the South, but there is diversity in those stories and it's exciting to see a unique perspective in this area.

Being that these people kept their beliefs means the film is steeped in mysticism. The island and the ghosts of the past as well as the ghost, and narrator, of a child yet to be born whose parents stay behind on the island is a large part of the family conflict that plays out. Nana Peazant, the family matriarch, great-great grandmother to the Unborn Child and played magnificently by Cora Lee Day, keeps the old ways alive evoking the spirits of their ancestors and making tokens to carry around for various protections. She scoffs at one point at the pendant of Saint Christopher around Yellow Mary's neck. That token has none of the power hers possess because it was manufactured, not crafted.

These conflicting ideas and traditions come to a head as Viola and Yellow Mary return to the island, Viola with the Christian bible and Yellow Mary with her lover and confidence in her sexuality. Both are dismissed by Haagar who calls them heathens along with Bilal Muhammad, one of the last former slaves brought to the island, who still practices the Islam his father taught him in the West Indies. This melting pot of ideas leads to an incredible scene as Nana takes the bible from Viola and wraps the book in one of her protections. Despite Viola's shouts about the wrongness of it, almost every member of the family, and the photographer Viola brought with her for the celebration, kisses the protection. As she protests the act, Viola concedes and kisses it herself. Haagar is the only one not to kiss the book. She adopts the atheist stance that she's had throughout that it doesn't matter, that these rituals are a waste of time. It's a scene that evokes the universal human personality that we cling to what makes us feel safe in times of uncertainty. It follows an equally powerful scene lead by Eula, the pregnant wife of Eli.

It's hard to parse out all of the ideas in this film as I don't know that I fully grasped the significance of some things, but as the story progresses there are some very intriguing subplots going on. The tale of the last slave ship, The Wanderer, and the myth and truth of what happened to the African slaves when they arrived. Then there is the progression of Eli Peazant and his conflicting ideas about leaving, his desire to want to help get anti-lynching laws passed, and his deep anger that the baby his wife Eula is carrying is not his, but a child she is bearing after being raped by a white man. Then there is the romantic subplot of Iona, Haagar's daughter, and St. Julien Lastchild, a Cherokee man, who works the land with the Peazant family.

Daughters of the Dust is dense in that way with a dozen characters to keep track of. Sometimes that density and the need to keep the story moving, drop big chunks that we as viewers are meant to infer, rather than are explicit. Trula, Yellow Mary's lover, is one of those strange pieces that are missing a small bit of context. I didn't get that Trula was Yellow Mary's lover from what I saw on screen. I had to read that in a subsequent article about the film on Wikipedia and was surprised by it. There is no overt indication of who she really is and while Haagar and others chastise Yellow Mary for her wicked ways, they never get specific. Through my own ignorance and based on the fact that she rarely interacts with other people on the island, I was convinced Trula was a ghost or spirit of some kind. I read too far into the mysticism of those scenes around her and because of the general air of the rest of the film. Her presence really does feel superfluous without the concrete details or implications. It doesn't help the people watching the film to understand these things when the awful early '90s infused score over powers the excellent drum beats that permeate throughout.

Despite any misgivings, Daughters of the Dust is a film that is beautiful in it's craft and deeply loving of its subjects. After watching it, it makes you even more perplexed by Hollywood that they couldn't have given Julie Dash many more opportunities to create features. I recommend this for anyone who has told their parent/spouse/partner/friend to watch seven different movies to fully understand the context of Black Panther. Also, you should see it because the diversity of African-American experiences is not very well represented on film and especially not in period pieces. This is an excellent example of a film where slavery and segregation are only specters over a lush family drama. Daughters of the Dust is currently streaming on Netflix as of this writing.

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