Film Review: Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ – 4/5.

Author: Feargal Agard | Runtime: 112 min. | Director: Julie Dash | Year: 1991.

This is such a beautiful and unique film. I wish we had more of this. I first saw this film in one of my classes from when I was studying in New York. When I heard that they had restored the film I just had to see it again. I love how dreamy this film is and how beautifully the world of these characters is constructed, so real yet so unreal. I was amazed to see it again.

Daughters of the Dust tells the story of the Peazant family in 1902. They are Gullah islanders and they live at Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island, which is somewhere at the South Carolina-Georgia coast. It wasn’t long ago that their elders were freed from slavery and their children are one of the first freeborns. They speak a variety of West African languages, all of these languages influenced the Gullah creole, which is the dialogue throughout the film. The story is narrated by the voice-over of an unborn child. This is the future daughter of Eli and Eula, but it is not Eli’s kid as Eula was raped by a white man on the main land. Even though the Peazants have lived in relative peace and they developed their own culture, two thirds of the family is planning to move up north to start a new life. The older ones do not want them to go, so the film surrounds the preparation and discussion between old and new and leaving or staying. There are many story lines between the Peazant family members. There is Viola, a devout Christian, Mr. Snead, a mainland photographer who came to document their lives. Yellow Mary, a free spirited lady who has brought her lover Trula with her to the island. Haagar, a cousin who despises the old spiritual beliefs and deems their island life as backwards. She happens to have a daughter Iona who has a secret lover St. Julien Lastchild, a Native American. Bilal Muhammad who is the only Muslim in their community. And finally we have matriarch Nana Peazant who watches over her family and urges them all to stay close to her.

Daughters of the Dust was written, directed and produced by Julie Dash. This film carries a lot of mystery with it, because it has an extensive background. One that relates to the history of slavery, a variety of African cultures, African beliefs and even deities. It is said that the characters all represent a Yoruba deity when it comes to their story lines and character features. Even the way that it is narrated by an unborn child and as a story on its own has a link to the way that dream-like tellings in particular African cultures were passed on to each other. What I appreciate the most is how they managed to create their own community and how diverse all the characters can be. They are such unique individuals, each with their own story, wants and needs. It is a great representation of how humans are. We are all so different and we all have to live with each other and respect each other. Thematically it deals with many different subjects; the old and new, the past, the present and the future, family issues, rape, sexuality, religion and spirituality, leaving and staying, identity and culture and so on. They come from people who were stolen from Africa and had to create a new way of living in the United States, but now the younger ones choose to move away and this means that another shift in their way of life and their culture will occur. The fear of losing one’s identity is the all encompassing theme, because no matter what each individual and they as collective are dealing with, they struggle with their wish to keep their own identity. The film has recently been restored in connection to its 25th anniversary and it was screened at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson and Kaycee Moore.

The acting can be seen as stylistic and theatrical. It is most likely meant to be like that, because it is a drama set in a diverse community with characters that subtly portray the embodiment of African deities. I’m also aware that African cultures display a particular exposition in their theatrical performances. It is hard to pinpoint it and connect it to a word, but it is not per se the kind of acting that would fit in a modern-day story. The acting is great and powerful and it is meant to be conveyed in this stylistic manner. It is very historical in a way and reminiscent of spiritual-like story-telling. Almost like you are sitting around a camp-fire, listening to the great stories that have been passed on for many ages. I have to say that there isn’t per se a main character, but you could almost say that the unborn child, whose voice-over narrates the story, could have been the main character. Except we never get to see her.

The cinematography can be recognized as a style that was mainly used by independent filmmakers in the early nineties. Clear but soft images (filmed on actual photographic film rolls), film shots in all focus sometimes in shallow focus (sometimes a tinsy bit off), and shots that carry the flavor of improvisation. Next to that the film enjoys a stylistic feel that suits the African theme. A contemporary mainstream film consumer may probably not appreciate that, but there is such a gorgeous playfulness to independent films with here and there some little faults at least in comparison to the standard that big Hollywood productions are assumed to maintain. These little faults give it such realness and above that seeing the grainy footage that a film back in those days creates, brings up the real film look. The film never really gets a dark tone, instead it feels like their living in such a dream-like world. I kept asking myself, “why do they want to leave?” They could stay there and make their own community even greater.

To me, Daughters of the Dust, represents one of the most beautiful films that I have seen. It has a particular style that is very unique and very in touch with the history of black people. This film is considered to be a jewel amongst all independent films. Do not expect super high drama or actions that make you want to fasten your seatbelt. It is about the relations, the identities and the historicities that these characters carry and represent. Enjoy the beauty of their world and discover how people who were displaced by slavery never give up and proudly carry on with their lives.

In Dutch theatres as from the 1st of June 2017.

Genre: Drama, romance | Language: English | Dutch Distributor: Full Color Entertainment

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s