By Andrea Thompson
What with the first two movies for my #52FilmsByWomen project being rewatches, I knew it was time to watch something new. To truly make the third time the charm, I chose one of the most groundbreaking films I still hadn't seen, “Daughters of the Dust.”
That said, some of the ground broken with “Daughters of the Dust” is less an inspiration that an indictment. It was made in 1991, and it was apparently the first film directed by a black woman to receive a theatrical distribution in the U.S. Director Julie Dash would not go on to have the illustrious film career she earned, despite the near universal critical acclaim (the film has a rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) “Daughters of the Dust” received.
Because “Daughters” isn't just good, it's spectacularly good. Roger Ebert called in a “tone poem,” and it's quite accurate. Set in 1902, the films tells the story of the Peazant family in the isolated Gullah community on the islands off the South Carolina coast who still practice many of the customs and culture of their formerly enslaved ancestors. The family is experiencing a series of crises, the main one being the desire of many to immigrate to the north and embrace a more modern lifestyle. Many among the younger generations have already left and adopted many of the beliefs they've encountered, including Christianity, which is in stark contrast to the pagan traditions of the elders. Others have yet to make a decision about whether to leave or stay.
Watching it is really a marvel, and I am frankly baffled that Dash ever managed to get it made. The film is told in a nonlinear fashion, and is narrated by the yet unborn child of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), who has her own problems. When she was on the mainland, she was raped by a white man. We know the child she's carrying is her husband Eli's (Adisa Anderson), but they do not. Eli is struggling with his feelings of helplessness over being unable to avenge his wife. It's made him ashamed of himself, and he's transferred those feelings of shame to Eula. But as matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) points out, Eula never belonged to him, and her rapist didn't steal her. She's his wife, not his property.
Eula is actually coping with her rape far better. She is the one who is able to speak the truth about how she and other black women move through the world weighed down by history and self-hatred. Unlike other movies that see black women permanently damaged and sidelined by their struggles, they are able to live with what's happened to them without being defined by it. This is due to the strength of Dash's filmmaking abilities, as she embraces a deeply feminine gaze, infusing her female characters with strength and beauty without idealizing them, just as she does for their lush surroundings. And why not? She's telling the story of her ancestors as a descendant of the Gullah culture who chose to leave for New York.
“Daughters of the Dust” has been experiencing a revival in the last couple of years, partly due to Beyonce's visual album “Lemonade.” The latter work was actually the reason I was able to see Dash herself speak about making “Daughters” at a screening of “Lemonade.” Dash related her desire to depict black women, especially former slaves, in a different, more accurate way. The director reminisced about the old photographs she discovered in her research, and how the long, flowing white dresses of the women in them were a far cry from the drab garb and head scarves audiences saw on-screen. She also wanted to acknowledge slavery's effects on the black body in a less exploitative fashion. In her film, we see no scars or marks from the lash. Instead, the older generations have permanently discolored hands from their labor on the indigo plantations.
The fact that Dash was unable to have a long career in film isn't just deeply unfair, it's a tragedy. She has gone on to inspire so many, from the aforementioned Beyonce to Ava DuVernay, but she seems unable to have the career she was born for, while so many male directors are allowed to fail upward. And after inspiring so many others, here's hoping she'll soon be able to again dream on the big screen herself.