Film Commentary: “Daughters of the Dust” Restored — Bold Black Filmmaking

The restoration and re-issue of Julie Dash’s masterpiece is a valuable reminder that black female filmmakers are still woefully unsung and underrepresented in contemporary cinema.

Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. At the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA, through January 10.

A scene from "Daughters of the Dust."

Alva Rogers as Eula Peazant, from left, Trula Hoosier as Trula, and Barbara- O as Yellow Mary Peazant in a scene from “Daughters of the Dust.”

By Peg Aloi

You’re forgiven if you’ve never seen Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. When this film was released in 1991, I was fortunate enough to be working at the Pleasant Street Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts, a small arthouse with two theatres inside: one devoted to 35mm screenings and the other to 16mm screenings (yes, very Old School; boy, is that place missed). The employees got to see films for free as often as they wanted, and I must’ve seen Daughters of the Dust at least half a dozen times. I was captivated by its lush, dreamy visuals and moved by its harrowing, fascinating depiction of an extended fin de siècle family descended from African slaves. The film’s setting is not only distinctive, but crucial to the film’s themes.

Some readers may have already had a chance to see a visual reference to that setting, the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia (a kid of misty paradise with huge trees covered in Spanish moss), in Beyoncé’s recent multimedia work Lemonade. The reference to the area in such as popular video may explain some of the newfound interest in this art-house sleeper film. But so what? The restoration and re-issue of Julie Dash’s masterpiece is a valuable reminder that black female filmmakers are still woefully unsung and underrepresented in contemporary cinema. The film is being shown in major revival venues around the country, from New York’s Film Forum to Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre. It’s difficult to express how happy I am that this film is out and about. It is among my favorites, and that it is being shown as it was intended shows appropriate deference for its impressive artistry and magic. I have no doubt that new viewers will be as enamored as I am.

Filmmaker Julie Dash made Daughters of the Dust on a comparatively small budget ($800,000) using gifted but almost utterly unknown actors. Arthur Jafa (who also was the second unit DP for Eyes Wide Shut) earned a Cinematography Award at Sundance that year, and the movie held its own alongside other Sundance darlings, Todd Haynes’ Poison and and Richard Linklater’s Slacker.

Set in 1902, the film’s period details are stunningly authentic: from its costumes (pristine white Victorian dresses, a style drawn on in Beyonce’s video) and sets (much of the film takes place out of doors, reflecting the leisurely lifestyle in this tranquil climate) to patois dialogue. The attention to detail suggests that the project might have been conceived and put together by an earnest historical society determined to create a quintessential expression of a little-known slice of American black history. But, in truth, Daughters of the Dust is entirely Dash’s brainchild, in part a loving reflection of her own family background.

This NPR interview with Dash offers some fascinating personal recollections on the film and its legacy, as well as the film’s influence on other work (the aforementioned Lemonade) and other artists, such as filmmaker Ava Duvernay, whose films Selma and 13th have garnered critical acclaim. Duvernay has spoken of Dash as an inspiration. Dash even wrote a sequel to the film, in the form of a novel, in 1997. Although the director continued to work as a filmmaker for cable television, she has never gotten a major motion picture deal. Perhaps this new focus on Dash’s accomplishment with Daughters of the Dust might turn that around.

Daughters of the Dust is a drama about black experience that was not made for the consumption of white audiences, which makes its critical acclaim admirable but also, at least on one level, irrelevant. White people simply do not have the connection to the history of genocide and slavery and imperalism that is in every African-American’s DNA. In this case, the film’s depiction of a freed slave family’s migration north, to find work and better opportunities, comes off as archetypal, an act of remembrance: it dimly and darkly echoes their ancestors’ journey from Africa to captivity in America, and the separation of children from mothers on slave plantations.

Daughters of the Dust is not a conventional narrative; many of its moments feel like visual poetry or chamber pieces. (Dash says that text from the film has been used in weddings and birthing ceremonies.) The film is filled with music, ritual, spiritual devotion, and gorgeous imagery of nature. The choice to set most of the scenes outdoors is a daring one, given the challenges of filming on location and using natural light. The story begins with the lilting voiceover of the family matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), which is taken (in part) from the Gnostic Gospels: “I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.”

Nana is upset that her family is leaving, and stubbornly wishes to remain behind. But younger members of the clan are also considering remaining behind too, like granddaughter Iona (Bahni Turpin), who is in love with a Native American boy. We learn that her name (“Iona”) was traditional among slave families, who chose names that reflected their status in the family, a reflection of how often children were removed from their mothers. Iona is a way of saying “I own her.” That segment proffers another voiceover, where family names are dreamily recited and slowly morph into the names of African gods and goddesses. Daughters of the Dust freely intertwines stories and images from a number of eras and contexts, creating a sort of mythic pastiche, a rich metaphorical backdrop that heightens the emotional power of the story. There is perhaps no other film in the canon of American cinema that so deftly and sensitively tells the story of a family whose assertion of its humanity carries such far-reaching resonances, from the injustices of history to the promise of the transcendent.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for called The Witching Hour

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts