Set in 1902 at Ibo Landing, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust cunningly transitions between being, on the one hand, a conventional heritage film fitted with ample, period-specific production detail and, on the other, a provocation of the audience with poetic passages that let narrative certainty hang in the balance. The approach runs counter to, say, that of Mister Johnson, itself a period piece which unfolds as though its ideas have already been settled beforehand. That film, also released in 1991, is classically shot, structured, and edited, but it becomes less a challenge to either the audience or conventional history than a predetermined vehicle to reinforce those perceptions. By playing loose with time and skipping across geographical space to allow voices exterior to the immediate proceedings a perspective, Dash conceives a work of art that’s as much a cinematic probe, and a challenge to mythologizing past eras, as it is an ancestral history lesson.
Which isn’t to say that Dash doesn’t deal in passages that have a mythologizing potential. The film’s opening, slow-motion image of dirt pouring out from a pair of open hands asks to be understood as an immediate symbol for the sanctity of land ownership. Similarly, the opening narrator announces herself as a series of contradictions, both honored and scorned, a whore and the holy one, a wife and a virgin, to cite a few. Taken in combination, Dash’s aesthetic choices become a useful primer on the film’s resignation for absolute meaning. In fact, the opening storytelling strokes are so obtuse and deliberately paradoxical that they give a false impression for Dash’s interests in history, which don’t subsequently skew abstract, but sensual in her attunement to the ground-level, bodily struggle of black women in America.
The film is as much a cinematic probe, and a challenge to mythologizing past eras, as it is an ancestral history lesson.
That much becomes clear throughout the film’s first third, as a small boat makes its way to Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island, which is inhabited by Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), a Gullah matriarch whose multiple daughters and granddaughters all live with her on the beaches and surrounding terrain. The boat carries, among others, Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), one of Nana’s granddaughters, who’s returning to the family’s home for a reunion, since several members of the family will be moving to an unspecified location in the northern United States within the coming days. In this early scene, Dash focuses on character decorum and agrarian setting in a manner that parallels early-20th-century literature, particularly that of Joseph Conrad (think Lord Jim) in its fixation on realism as a matter of intricate detail. Of course, Dash is not seeking to reinforce the aesthetic interests of Conrad; rather, elliptical edits and unbalanced framings help to refute a colonialist style of realism.
Accordingly, every scene in Daughters of the Dust operates on at least three levels. As a narrative, the Peazant family’s reckoning with the stakes of their impending migration recovers a portion of a period of American history that’s been roundly neglected by all dominant accounts of America at the turn of the 20th century. As autobiography, Dash’s creole-accented father, whose family moved to New York from the sea islands in the Southeastern Atlantic Ocean coast, serves as the film’s impetus, yet the Gullah characters aren’t modeled on historical people; they’re creations based upon Dash’s research. Unlike conventional accounts of the past that often lean on claims of verisimilitude for their cultural clout, Daughters of the Dust roundly rebukes any such possibility of authenticity. In turn, such a move away from trying to serve as a replication of the historical record makes the film as much about Dash herself, whose rejection by Hollywood throughout the 1980s made the project’s realization unachievable. Thus, the impossible telling of the tale is mirrored by an impossible tale, in the sense that the film pushes against being made accessible beyond Dash’s own artistic interests.
Daughters of the Dust deploys visual flourishes that speak, like the characters, to the terrain of Ibo Landing. Dash shoots the St. Simons Island’s sands with a constantly mobile camera, with characters often flushed to the right side of the frame. Conversations occur to the beat of whirring wind and alternate between exchanges of shouts and whispers. Dash never stays within a scene for too long, which gives added emphasis to a late monologue by Eula (Alva Rogers), who questions the island’s purity and explicitly dismisses the idea that she, or the entire Peazant family, can feel unified with any body of land because of “the shackles on our feet.” Her plea for opportunity and the expenditure of tradition should be understood as Dash’s own. As Eula gathers, arm in arm with Nana and the rest of her family, the film renovates the 89 years separating past from present and asks that this family, and Dash herself, be an instrument for change, not a relic forgotten by the sands of time.