Monday, November 6, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #178 - Daughters of the Dust (1991, dir. Julie Dash)

2017 represents a milestone for two of the most significant films in African-American cinema history. It’s the 40th anniversary of Charles Burnett’s landmark Killer of Sheep, an episodic, loose narrative centered around a slaughterhouse worker, and it’s also the year that Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust – the first feature film ever distributed in the U.S. that was directed (and also written and produced) by an African-American woman - enjoyed a re-release in theaters and an upgraded remastering on DVD and blu-ray.

Dash’s film got much-deserved notice as the remastering work (done in 2016) coincided with the 25th anniversary of the film, but it got a huge bump in attention when Beyoncé borrowed imagery from the film for her visual album Lemonade (there are a number of online articles noting similarities), and that helped the film see not only a remastering, but a re-release in theaters this year as well. But the accolades would mean little if Dash’s enigmatic, sumptuous film did not hold up to repeat viewings – a test it passes with flying colors.

Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina as the Peazant family, a community of Gullahs – free descendants of African slaves – prepare to move to the mainland and head north for more opportunity. Because of the Gullahs’ isolation, they’ve retained a distinct dialect and unique culture, rooted in the African traditions passed down through generations and married to the New World. In fact, more than any specific plot points (though the intertwining relationships of the characters is also important), that is the theme of the film: the future and the past are related, and a community’s history is a living thing to be carried by the present generation and passed on to the future. Early in the film, matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) says this outright “The ancestor and the womb – they one, they the same” and this is the film’s central idea. It’s why an as-yet-unborn narrator remembers things from before her birth and appears in a photograph documenting the Gullahs before they leave the island. Some have found the film’s dialect challenging to understand, but close listening makes all but the most obscure language clear, and while the relationships of some of the characters can also be challenging to work out, again it comes back to the idea that the film is about a community, and a straight linear story is not on the agenda. Instead we’re immersed in this community and allowed the privilege of observing a set of customs long gone in the real world, but retained in all their vitality in Dash’s gorgeously photographed and acted film.

The film can be a challenge, yes, particularly if you’re hung up on everything being clearly explained to you or a plot that moves steadily from A to B to C, but it’s absolutely worth the effort – there’s simply nothing else like it in cinema. Dash reached into her own family’s history to tell the story of “the adult-born-free African-American person, the first generation of free-borns making decisions about their future” and she assembled a cast and a crew around her to help realize her work beautifully. The cinematography is simply ravishing from beginning to end, and Dash’s decision to allow the women’s conversations and decisions be the driving force of the film is absolutely the right choice. From Nana’s resistance to the move north to Yellow Mary’s (Barbara O) return to the scorn of much of her family and realization how much her roots mean to her to Eula’s (Alva Rogers) fears about her unborn child and her heart-rending final speech, “We carry too many scars from the past. Our past own us. We wear our scars like armor…” the stories interwoven into the totality of the film are absolutely compelling and deserving of multiple viewings. The film is an underseen masterpiece of American filmmaking and deserving of the widest possible audience.

-Patrick Brown

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