Being the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was theatrically distributed in the United States – a release as regrettably recent as 1991 – should be the kind of milestone that ensures a director’s subsequent commercial success and a mainstay in cinema history and yet here we are and I didn’t even know the name of UCLA graduate Julie Dash until literally a year ago, despite a familiarity with the L.A. Rebellion cinema movement for several years and having actually seen and vividly remembered one of her movies from a high school viewing – the underrated television movie The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett. And while there are plenty of great filmmakers I’m unfamiliar with and personal anecdotes is no real method to measure the popularity of an artist, the fact that Dash has been almost entirely relegated to television work since Daughters of the Dust‘s premiered at Sundance 17 years ago and won a very much deserved Best Cinematography award at that same festival for Arthur Jafa is frustrating.
Maybe Dash likes working in TV, maybe she can’t find the actual funding for the cinematic projects she wants to do. It’s a goddamn shame either way that she doesn’t return very much to the big screen or that her works are generally hard to find, because Daughters of the Dust is one of the most arresting cinematic experiences in all my life of movie-watching. Every syllable of its language – in terms of mood, in dialogue, in terms of structure – there’s very little I’ve seen like it. The movie’s closest sibling to me is Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé in how they both seem to exude these intoxicating atmospheres from lush settings to a manner where it makes the film feel so organic and yet they’re both still worlds AND cultures apart.
The culture at the center of Daughters of the Dust is the Lowcountry-based Gullah community, isolated descendants of African slaves developing their own creole language and dialect while mixing in Western dress and housing with the traditions and religion of their West African backgrounds, deep in the forests of lonely islands. I don’t know how much of the mainland formal dress of the characters in Daughters of the Dust is specific only to our subjects, the Peazant family off the coast of Georgia in Ibo Landing, but it is undeniably part of what gives the film such a heightened fantastical atmosphere that we have such a small functioning community cut off from the rest of the world in its rusticity and how fluidly it could mix in with the Caribbean spiritualism that is highly in practice from the primary matriarch of the film Nana (Cora Lee Day).
You see why the dresses and suits and the technological modern elements brought by photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) would possibly be seeping into the lifestyle of the Peazants and the rest of the Gullah people in this film is because of how most of them intend to leave Ibo and move into mainland America and adopt modern lifestyles, leaving behind the Gullah way. There are those, such as the traditional Nana or the young smitten Iona (Bahni Turpin), who object to the concept of leaving behind the site or ways. And in many a manner, alongside the florid elegant costumes – given wonderful aged tactility by Arline Burks Gant – and Mr. Snead’s enthusiastic explanation of the science behind his work, there are signs that Western culture has already intruded into Ibo Landing’s Gullah community, such as the return of the Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and the liberal Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), both of them having already made a life outside of Ibo Landing within the cities and both of them clearly at odds with each other. Mary herself brings along her outsider lover Trula (Trula Hoosier), disrupting the isolationism status of the island. And there is also the recent rape of Eula (Alva Rogers) by a white man, which evidently resulted in a pregnancy that distresses her marriage to Eli (Adisa Anderson). There’s already been intrusions in this community that urges their leaving behind their cultural identity for a world that doesn’t care about them or to remember them, responded to by an all-too-impeccable cast. There’s already a fear that their history with slavery has injected homogeneity and disenfranchisement, even when they’re far away from the white man’s clutches.
In fact, Dash and editors Amy Carey & Joseph Burton do something really radical with the structure of all this sprawling internal family drama, which is to first establish these tales told in patches with no specific point of view from which we observe this family’s final gathering before the migration up north splits them apart except Eula’s future daughter (Kay-Lynn Warren), playing a much more direct reflection of these events than something like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and at some points having her present in these settings impossibly. The effect is simple yet powerful: we’re essentially resurrecting a memory, maybe an oral history being passed down by the daughter to generations. It feels present, it feels absolutely vivid thanks to Jafa’s beautiful awareness of how to dry the tones in the slowly dying community yet ramp up the inky blues and reds and oranges of the coastline as in to look forward to what’s beyond the horizon rather than the cracked graveyards and humble abodes of the characters (there is also some brilliant character-based color design in some of the rooms, painterly and revealing).
It’s a story being told in a manner that is aware of the future for its characters to the point that it’s already sort of living in that future. And it doubles up on that temporal bending with Dash inputting the actual history of the Gullah people’s development and escape from slavery, especially the historical mass suicide of 1803 and what kind of sacrifices were made for the land that the Peazants are decidedly leaving behind. This contextualization, despite the history of Ibo Landing, isn’t entirely melancholic. It’s resigned but it’s also relaxed, essentially a movie you don’t really watch for the plot but sink into this world knowing that it’s going to leave soon and wanting to savor every last image and moment you can remain inside of it. Dash clearly has an overwhelming amount of love for the Gullah culture, it being a part of her father’s background and thus informing her existence and it shows in the detail with which she evokes so many different histories into this free-wheeling experiment attempting to translate the oral storytelling language of Gullah into cinema.
It’s not a perfect film, wearing both the modest budget and dating of the production in the 90s on its sleeve involuntarily. Jafa in particular, for all his experimenting with the imagery gives it so much character (and it’s never not a gorgeous movie), also has some false notes with slow-motion and deliberately fuzzy distortion. But these are minor quibbles compared to the way that Daughters of the Dust challenges the viewer with storytelling that Dash’s future career ensures we’re probably never going to witness again and rewards that viewer with the dreamiest island environments and humanly messy conflicts one could be privy to before bidding the Peazants farewell from their home and us from the film’s living and breathing remembrances.