DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991, 113 min.), directed by Julie Dash, screenplay by Julie Dash, produced by Julie Dash and Arthur Jafa, cinematography by Arthur Jafa, music by John Barnes, production design by Kerry Marshall; with Cora Lee Day (Nana Peazant), Alva Rogers (Eula Peazant), Barbara-O (Yellow Mary Peasant), Trula Hoosier (Trula), Umar Abdurrahamn (Bilal Muhammed), Adisa Anderson (Eli Peazant), Kaycee Moore (Haagar Peazant), Eartha D. Robinson (Myown Peazant), Bahni Turpin (Iona Peazant), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Viola Peazant), Tommy Hicks (Mr. Snead), Malik Farrakhan (Newlywed Man), Cornell Royal (Daddy Mac Peazant), Vertamae Grosvenor (Hairbraider), M. Cochise Anderson (St. Julien Last Child). In English and Gullah with English subtitles.

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. . . . 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 Peazant, Daughters of the Dust

There gonna be all kind of road to take in life. Let’s not be fraid to take ‘em. We deserve ‘em. Because we all good woman. Do you understand? Who we are and what we become? We the daughters of all those dusty things Nana carries around in her tin can. We carry too many scars from our past. We wear our scars like armor, for protection. Thick, ugly scars that no one can pass through to ever hurt us again. Let’s live our lives without living in the fold of old wounds. —Eula Peazant, Daughters of the Dust

There must be a bond . . . a connection, between those that go up North, and those who across the sea. A connection! We are as two people in one body. The last of the old, and the first of the new. We will always live this double life, you know, because we’re from the sea. We came here in chains, and we must survive. We must survive. There’s salt-water in our blood . . .—Nana Peazant, Daughters of the Dust.

Most scholars and critics consider Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust to be one of the best, and certainly one of the most important films to have emerged from the African Diaspora. It serves as the perfect culmination for this 15th Cascade Festival of African Films because of the way it takes the twin strands of West African and African-American experience and ties them effectively into a cultural and spiritual knot, at once graceful, sturdy, and persevering. The first theatrical feature film by an African-American woman, it also brings wonderful closure to Women Filmmakers week.

The film makes that connection by locating itself among the Gullah (or Geechee) people of the Atlantic sea islands, off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, at the turn of the last century. These islands were frequently the first New World stop for West African slaves; Julie Dash considers them "a kind of Ellis Island for Africans." Most soon left the islands for the ongoing misery of the mainland plantations, but some remained to grow and work the indigo (the unique blue dye whose technology was imported from West Africa). There, in the relative isolation of island life, a unique blend of West African and New World cultures was able to preserve itself. This blended culture manifested itself in its language and intonation patterns, its cuisine, its religious practices, and in many other ways. Veterans of the Film Festival will remember two documentaries that we have shown that focus on the distinct connections between Gullah and West African culture: Family Across the Sea and The Language You Cry In.

The specific time period of Daughters is significant. It is 1902, and the Peazant family, which has lived in these islands since there were brought to the continent as slaves, is about to be broken up. In their home at Ibo Landing, on St. Helena Island, the family revolves around its matriarch, Nana Peazant, their link to the days of slavery. However, the younger generations are about to leave Nana to make the great migration to the North. The film records their final day and a half as a family in Ibo Landing.

To celebrate this moment, two very different family members are returning to Ibo Landing from their established lives on the mainland, and they meet up with one another at the very beginning of the film. Viola Peazant is a respectable church woman, with eyes only for the future and the culture of "respectable" white America. As she puts it, showing off her knowledge of Shakespeare, "What’s past is prologue." She is bringing with her a man whom she secretly loves, the "Philadelphia Negro" photographer, Mr. Snead. Yellow Mary Peazant (played by Barbara O., a veteran of Haile Gerima films and of Maangamizi) has also put her past behind her, but she has no illusions about marching towards a better world. While on the mainland, she was "ruint" by a wealthy white man, and eventually was forced to turn to prostitution. Elegant, beautiful, and "liberated," she is returning to the shocked eyes of her family for the first time in many years, accompanied by her light-skinned girlfriend, Trula, who comes from Nova Scotia.

Yellow Mary will soon find herself not only at odds with cousin Viola, whom she can easily intimidate, but with a much more formidable opponent: Nana’s daughter-in-law, Haagar Peazant (played forcefully by the superb Kaycee Moore, who was so memorable in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts). Haagar is the strongest woman on the island next to Nana. An outsider, who prides herself on her literacy and modernity, she has married into the family and has essentially challenged Nana for the position of matriarch. It is she who is the leading force behind the decision to move. She wants a better life for her daughters, and has little patience for the legacy of the "Salt-Water Negroes" (those who came from Africa) that preoccupies the Peazant family.

The other powerful female presence in the film is young, pregnant Eula Peazant, who has also married into the family. Her husband is Eli Peazant, one of Nana’s grandsons, a decent, respectful young man, who, like his wife, is strongly attached to the traditional ways. Theirs is a strong, loving relationship, but it is experiencing terrible times as the film opens. Eula, we learn, has also been "ruint," raped by a local white planter. She will not tell her husband who it was that did this to her, because she knows that he will kill the man and be lynched in turn. Like all too many black men who have been placed in that situation, Eli finds himself eaten up by feelings of powerlessness, rage, and guilt. He also suspects that the daughter who sleeps in his wife’s womb is the child of the rapist, not his.

We know, however, that the child is indeed his, because she is a character in this lovely, poetic, very spiritual film. She is the Unborn Child, and she serves as one of the film’s two narrators (the other is her great-grandmother, Nana Peazant), a being in transition, living between worlds, and consequently able to travel to the past and to the future as easily as she can see the events of the present day. She is the heir to Nana Peazant, the force who will eventually be able to carry the past into the future. She will also eventually become the catalyst for her parents’ reconciliation. She has, she tells us, been sent forward by the old souls.

The events of the film unfold in a series of self-enclosed vignettes linked by the threads of the Unborn Child’s and Nana’s narrations. The women of the family come together to play, to gossip, to strut in their finery, but mainly to prepare the feast that will celebrate their passing (which Dash refers to as their Last Supper), especially the archetypal Gullah dish of gumbo, which—like the Gullahs—is a mélange, a mixture, a creole.

In addition to the Peazant family, there are other characters in this cultural gumbo, other remnants. We have old Bilal Muhammed, one of the last of the Africans to be brought to the West, and who still clings to half-remembered fragments of his culture and Muslim religion. We have St. Julien Last Child, the last of the Cherokee Indians who once inhabited these islands. Like Nana, he refuses to leave his ancestral home. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that he is also the lover of young Iona Peazant, one of Haagar’s daughters.

As the film moves to the final separation, Nana struggles to assemble various items from her tin can of memories—a lock of hair that her mother cut from her head and gave to her daughter, just as the mother was sold off to another owner; a lock of her own hair; and other bits and pieces of her life—into a "hand," a fetish that could be given to her granddaughters to carry with them to their new life in the North. Meanwhile, the Unborn Child struggles to remove the disharmony that splits the women and threatens to ruin the memory of Ibo Landing. Both are ultimately successful, and the passage to the new age can take place. But not all will leave, and those who do will not leave empty-handed.

* * *

If the narrative building block of the film is the self-enclosed vignette, the visual building blocks are the tableaux, the series of stunning images that are deeply pleasing visually (the cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, who also shot Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, does amazing work in this film), but which also resonate with meaning. Daughters of the Dust utilizes a traditional African-American aesthetic which Robert Farris Thompson of Yale University, quoting Zora Neale Hurston, describes as "decorating the decorations." In other words, it adds layer upon intricate layer of meaning and beauty to objects of nature and artifacts of everyday use.

We see the traditional "bottle trees," the graves covered with the possessions of the deceased, the rich quilts, and of course the wonderful patterns of the women’s hair. We have the striking images of black women in white dresses on a white beach, or in the dense greenery of the coastal swamps, dancing or playing or strutting. (Dash has said that one of her goals was to "redefine the way that black women look on film.") These are not just static images, though. The camera is often moving and exploring, sometimes in very effective slow-motion, and always made even richer by the haunting musical score that informs them.

Once the director has decided to eschew traditional narrative in favor of something more poetic and multi-layered, particular elements can rise to the level of recurring symbols that create vortices of meaning. The first of these striking elements is the use of indigo blue, both as color and content. Indigo is the color of their legacy. The West Africans were brought to the New World in part because of their knowledge of how to work the indigo. Indigo, in the words of the director, is one of the "scars of slavery." We see Gullah women whose hands are still stained (symbolically) with the blue of indigo, which they can never wash away. Yet these scars also become in a sense something to be embraced. For Nana, they represent the time that she lived, loved, and and worked with the family patriarch, her husband, Shad Peazant. Just as other widows might wear black, she always wears blue. Blue becomes the color of sorrow, of memory. It is telling, then that the Unborn Child, who wears mainly white, has an indigo ribbon in her hair.

The second striking element is the powerful tale of the Ibo. A story that is widespread in African-American lore, it symbolizes resistance and deep spirituality. We hear it in two versions, one by Bilal (his version reflects his cultural despair and isolation) and one by Eula (her version serves as one of the film’s emotional pinnacles and spiritual markers). It tells of a group of highly spiritual Ibo (a Nigerian ethnic group) who were brought to the islands; when they saw the life that awaited them, they chose to turn around, march into the water and drown themselves, so that their spirits could take off and return to Africa.

These two motifs, Indigo and Ibo, embody the film’s central motif and message: despite the horrors of slavery and the enormous pressures of cultural indoctrination, there is much of Africa to be found in the traditions and spirituality of African Americans if one cares to look. And if one does care, the traces of continuity and legacy can be powerful and inspiring, and can give guidance.

* * *

Julie Dash was born and raised in New York City, but her father and his side of the family were raised in the Gullah culture. She was brought up on Gullah cooking, intonation patterns, and way of looking at the world. She first studied filmmaking at the Studio Museum of Harlem, then attended City College of New York, where she graduated with a degree in film. She moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was able to meet and work with some of the black independent filmmakers that were there at the time (a group that included Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, and Billy Woodberry). She became a student at the American Film Institute, then at UCLA, where she graduated with an MFA in Film & Television Production. Her student film, Diary of an African Nun, adapted from a short story by Alice Walker, won her a Director’s Guild Award in 1977. Her short film, Illusions, made in 1983, earned a number of awards, including the 1989 Jury Prize for "Best Film of the Decade" by the Black Filmmakers Foundation.

She began conceiving Daughters of the Dust in 1975. It was originally to be a short film made without dialogue, visually chronicling the departure of a Gullah family from their sea island home to a new life in the North. It developed over the years, adding layers of meaning and a clearer aesthetic vision. Together with Arthur Jafa, she eventually managed to put together a short prototype that could give a sense of what the film would be. Though everyone claimed to be impressed with what she was doing in it, Hollywood had no interest in making it whatsoever. Finally, in 1988 she was able to secure funding from the PBS series, American Playhouse and could begin work on it.

She cast a number of veterans of Black Independent Cinema in various roles, as a kind of tribute to the work they had done and the sacrifices they had made, along with a mainly African-American crew. For the sake of authenticity and poetry, she chose to use the Gullah dialect in the film, and used Ronald Daise, author of Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage (1987) as the dialect coach for her actors (none of whom had experience with it). She also chose not to use subtitles in the film, preferring to have audiences fully immerse themselves in the color and mystery of this creole language.

The film was shot in only 28 days on a shoestring budget of $800,000 (an extremely low budget considering that the principal actors and technicians were union members) St. Helena Island and Hunting Island, off the South Carolina coast. Post-production began in January 1990 and took nearly two years, again mainly due to financial troubles. The challenges faced by African-American independent filmmakers resembles in many ways those faced by their analogues on the African continent.

Despite all the problems, the film was completed and released to great critical acclaim. Arthur Jafa won the Best Cinematography award at Sundance, and many others eventually were showered upon the film. Its reputation has continued to grow over the years.

Since making Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash has focused on television work, most recently with The Rosa Parks Story (2002) and Brothers of the Borderland (2004), set at the time of the Underground Railroad. She is currently working on Making Angels, a film set in the New York art scene.

--Notes by Michael Dembrow

For More Information:

William S. Pollitzer: The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Julie Dash (with Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (introduction to the film, interview, and screenplay), The New Press, 1992.

 

 

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