The lateness of some political milestones can be horrifying to realize once you put them in temporal context. There are people alive now who lived through a time before women earned the right to vote in American elections. In 1964 The Beatles gave birth to modern pop music the same year The Civil Rights Act (legally) ended racial segregation. The Supreme Court made gay marriage legally binding in 2015, less than 15 years after it officially decriminalized sodomy in 2003. I’m always bewildered (and more than a little horrified) by how late in the game these kinds of milestones arrive and my most recently discovered example on that note is the case of Daughters of the Dust. Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film directed by a black woman to earn a theatrical release in the United States. In 1991. That’s madness. The same year Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars, the Internet was first made available for commercial use, Nirvana’s Nevermind made punk popular again, and Rodney King’s assault & arrest were caught on video tape, the first film directed by a black woman to be theatrically released in the US landed a political milestone that should have come decades, if not almost a century sooner. I can’t get over that.
One of the best things about Julie Dash’s history-making crown jewel is that it is fiercely, unapologetically black. Typifying pop culture Afrocentrism of the early 90s, the film depicts several generations of a Gullah family of slave descendants as they negotiate on what level they’d be participating in the modern world. Isolated on an island off the American coast near Georgia, the Gullah people thrived as free outsiders with their own unique culture, language, and customs. The threat of rape, exploitation, and enslavement looms over them, but is kept entirely off-camera as the film focuses on a very specific moment early in the 20th Century as younger generations long to leave behind old religions to join a modern world they’ve only seen in photographs while their elders cling to culture & tradition. Rhythmic African percussion, folk art, and meticulous food preparation (including what looks like a life-changing gumbo) drive the film’s apparent concern with preservation of culture in the face of a world that seems determined to colonize and homogenize. For all of Daughters of the Dust‘s fretting over staying still vs keeping in motion and reminders to “Respect your family. Respect your elders. Respect your ancestors,” it doesn’t at all play like an academic exercise in anthropology cinema. Besides being a vivid record of a highly specific black cultural experience, Daughters of the Dust also feels deeply personal and resoundingly poetic.
Written, directed, and produced by Dash herself, the film boasts the art film obfuscation that often gets called “dreamlike” or a “tone poem.” The negotiations (mostly between women) over who will and who will not be returning to mainland America after the film’s climactic feast provide a very basic structure for the story Daughters of the Dust wants to tell, but a lot of its narrative is expressed through the feelings evoked in its imagery. Floods of wild horses disrupt island calm. Purple steam rises from wooden cauldrons as women process indigo dye. Characters languidly drape themselves on immense trees like sentient moss. The whole story is narrated by a bodyless spirit billed as Unborn Child in the credits. Dash’s film is a sometimes impenetrable, but often beautiful evocation of a mood & a spirit. It may first appear from the outside to be a historical work about the Gullah people on the precipice of the modern world, but Daughters of the Dust strives to be something much grander & harder to pinpoint than that reductive description and it’s near-impossible not to admire the film’s ambitions even when its individual moments aren’t wholly successful.
I’ll admit that at times during this film I had found it to be more interesting as an artifact than as a moment to moment experience. Much like the films of similarly image-centric auteurs like Nicolas Winding Refn (who I love) and Terrence Malick (who I loathe), this is the kind of work where you have to find its rhythm early or else get left behind. Besides my personal lack of interest in narratively loose, intentionally obscured modes of filmmaking, an occasional choice in home video-era frame rate or embarrassingly dated soundtrack cues threw me off in specific moments where I lost the rhythm of what Daughters of the Dust was trying to accomplish (and, to be fair, those were likely editing choices, the one area of production Dash didn’t handle herself). I did, however, continuously find the film fascinating & wondrous to behold as it presented a culture and a set of images rarely evoked onscreen. Having watched the less than stellar Kino-released DVD of the film, I’m very much interested in seeing the restored version of Daughters of the Dust that’s currently making the rounds (having just played at New Orleans Film Fest last month). Not only was Dash’s film a far too late cultural milestone for black female directors, it hasn’t been well treated or remembered in the decades since its release. After being cited as a major influence on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, though, it seems that it’s finally getting the respect & recognition it deserves and I’d love to see how vivid the film’s powerful imagery is in its latest, most well-handled incarnation, so I can fall even further under its spell.