Before Ava DuVernay, before Dee Rees, before Gina Prince-Bythewood, before Kasi Lemmons, there was Julie Dash. Dash’s Daughters of the Dust earned its place in the history of film by becoming the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to gain general theatrical release and distribution—and it earned that place in the shockingly recent year of 1991. It is a remarkable piece of work not only for its place in cultural history but also for its distinctive aesthetics and for the story it tells: a story of hope, grief, and transition set among the Gullah people, a group of African Americans living on the islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Somewhat isolated from the continental United States, as the film’s prologue tells us, the Gullah retained elements of their original African languages, values, and ways of life long after African culture was violently suppressed in the lives of mainland African Americans. Dash tells a graceful, dreamlike story of one Gullah family reuniting in 1902 before departing for life on the mainland—and for a nation on the brink of modernity.
As much a poem as a movie, Daughters of the Dust unfolds in a series of almost plotless, loosely associative, lyrical vignettes as the Peazant family gathers before leaving Ibo Landing for the northern mainland. As different parties arrive, family members reminisce, air old grievances, guard secrets, argue about the old magic and the new religions, and wonder about one another’s inner mysteries. An elder remembers working with highly toxic indigo dyes on the plantation where she was a slave. Young women remember the assaults and exploitation that they endured at the hands of white employers. Children learn West African words from their elders, play in the sand, and get into trouble, while adults prepare food, pass judgment on a “ruined” relative, and speculate about a stranger in their midst. One relative-turned-missionary hopes to “save” her reluctant kin, while her photographer companion records the family in its moment of transition. Moments of drama erupt when family members argue about the wisdom of leaving, and old tensions threaten to tear the family apart. In all, the film lives and breathes in its characters’ intensely emotional speeches. (If you’re looking for a film high on incident, however, this isn’t it.) Between the volcanic utterances, the wordless scenes of landscape and seascape float by like a distant, beautiful, sad memory. Undergirding the whole is a strong sense of the pain, loss, and courage of a people trying to imagine a new life for themselves, and trying to transcend the violence that was done to them through generations of racist oppression.
The leisurely, meditative quality of the story’s pacing is matched by the slow, sensuous quality of its images. Young women and girls, almost all dressed in white, lounge at the seaside and play with gauzy veils and scarves that blow in the ocean breezes. The “ruined” representative of the era’s “New Woman,” Yellow Mary, smokes cigarettes and laughs shamelessly and scandalously with her elegant and mysterious female companion. Boats quietly glide across the water and grasses glow yellow and gold in the sunset. It’s an uncommonly lovely film, and its experimental elements add to its quiet interiority. (One of the film’s narrators is a spectral “unborn child” remembering the moment before departure; in one striking sequence, she gazes through a stereopticon at its static photographic images but “sees” the modern world unfolding before her as film footage. The sense of adventure waiting alongside imminent loss is haunting.) As the time for the family’s departure arrives, it’s as melancholy for audiences to leave the film’s world as it is wrenching for the characters to leave theirs.
Daughters of the Dust is extraordinary in its beauty and power. The film feels like a new mythos: forceful, ineffable, and profound. It’s unfortunate that it has been so little discussed in the mainstream popular sphere, that so few people are even aware that it exists. As newer African-American women filmmakers begin to receive—finally—more public attention for their work, audiences would do well to look again at the achievements of directors like Julie Dash, who lit the way for others to follow.
Daughters of the Dust plays at Northwest Film Forum starting Thursday, February 9.