DAUGHTERS OF DUST
1991, 1 hour 52 min
The Return of Julie Dash’s Historic “Daughters of the Dust”
by Richard Brody
The New Yorker, November 18, 2016
The year’s best and most original movie was made in 1991 and is returning today, in a new restoration, to Film Forum, where it premièred a quarter century ago: “Daughters of the Dust,” Julie Dash’s vast yet intimate drama, set in 1902, about the preparations of an extended family on one of the Sea Islands, off the coast of Georgia, to migrate to the American mainland. It’s a movie that runs less than two hours and feels like three or four—not in sitting time but in substance, in historical scope and depth of emotion, in the number of characters it brings to life and the novelistic subtlety of the connections between them, in the profusion of its ideas and the cinematic imagination with which they’re realized, in the sensuous beauty of its images and sounds and the indelibly exalted gestures that it impresses on one’s memory.
It’s a story of the Great Migration of African-Americans, survivors of slavery and the descendants of former slaves, to the North; it’s made in a way that both embraces the historical idea and atomizes it in the sharp specificity of personal experience. The splendid complexity of “Daughters of the Dust” is developed from a simple situation: as two urbanized women from the Peazant family return to the island as a sort of delegation to organize the migration, it’s uncertain whether all the members of the family will go. Some are considering staying behind on the island, and the decision that each must make is the core of the drama.
The Peazant family is a matriarchy, with Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) at its apex. She’s the living memory of the African cultural and religious traditions that her own ancestors maintained and transmitted, and her traditionalism is viewed by some of the younger women in the family, who are devout Christians, as dishonorable paganism and an obstacle to success in urban society. Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is one of the family ambassadors from the North, arriving from Philadelphia in the company of an educated photographer, Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), who will document the occasion. The other delegate is Mary Peazant (Barbara-O), called Yellow Mary, an elegant sophisticate travelling in the company of Trula (Trula Hoosier), a woman whom the family takes to be Yellow Mary’s lover.
Eula (Alva Rogers) is married to Eli (Adisa Anderson), Nana’s great-grandson; Eula is pregnant with a character called only the Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren), a girl whose voice-over narration alternates with Nana’s, and who shows up in the film as an apparition, a vision of the future of the Peazant family. Eula was raped by a white man, and Eli is tormented by the suspicion that the baby is the product of that rape, but neither she nor Eli have any recourse, legal or otherwise—the fear of lynching weighs heavily upon Eli, as it does upon the entire family.
Iona (Bahni Turpin), another young woman of the Peazant family, is in love with St. Julien Lastchild (M. Cochise Anderson), a young Cherokee man who lives on the island, and faces the prospect of leaving him behind. There’s also a Muslim community on the island; its elder, Bilal Muhammad (Umar Abdurrahman), remembers the last, illegal slave ships that were anchored off the coast of the island; Snead, an amateur historian, interviews Bilal about the island’s history, and uncovers a story about African captives that provides the horrific and heroic background for an idealized local legend.
Dash films the characters with a blend of physical precision and hieratic grace; there’s an ordinary declamation to the dialogue that heightens it even above the everyday grandeur of endurance to the gravity of the moment at hand. Snead is there to document a moment that, the family knows, is decisive for each of them, and the very tone of their voices and force of their gestures reflects their tremulous, sacred awareness that the course of their own lives and the family name is now, more than ever, in their hands.
Yet, along with the gravity of the occasion, there’s also the local pageantry of dancing on the beach, children’s games, the festivity of a picnic, the formality of posed group photographs, and organized ceremonies blending family bonds with ancient practices. Dash—deftly employing music by John Barnes—fuses the societal and political implications of the occasion with art and culture, religion and idiosyncratic family customs. The film’s transformation of great historic events into emblematic moments and ineffable moods is a matter of Dash’s ingenious way with cinematic form, as well as of her work with the cinematographer Arthur Jafa.
The movie’s images have a luminous fullness, a decentered dynamism, and a dance-like flow that separate them from mere illustration and raise them to a visual music that matches the movie’s bold dramatic construction. The connection of each scene, of each moment, to the over-all story is slightly oblique and abstracted. Each sequence has a strong and complex identity, intertwining many strands of relationships, interests, and emotions; their position and function in the story emerge from light leaps of imagination and concentrated inferences. That inner distance between events and dramatic arcs is one of the film’s great virtues. Dash’s detail-filled microhistorical sequences undo the deceptive clarity of fixed categories and encyclopedic formulas, such as “the Great Migration” itself, by rediscovering the richness of the phenomena that they encapsulate in the dense tangle of individuals’ experiences.
That tangle, however, is no obstacle to lucidity, to powerful insight; it’s unfair to spoil one of the most thrilling yet pain-seared dramatic moments in any modern film, the one that Eula delivers in a climactic speech to her family members as they make the final plans for their departure, in which she gathers the agonized core of the black American experience—the physical and mental wounds of captivity, the constant threat of violence, the unredressed prevalence of rape, the legacy of humiliation—in a physical performance of words that ring as prophetically to the Peazant family as to viewers today.
The Unborn Child is the herald of an unsentimentally hopeful future that’s built on a full and free awareness and acceptance of a tormented past and divisions in the present as well as of ongoing struggles; through her premonitions, Dash enfolds one family’s self-transformations in a comprehensive, ecstatic, yet tragic vision. “Daughters of the Dust” re-creates one strand of African-American history and tradition as a sort of deferred cinematic classical music, the lyrical reclamation of a vital cultural life—and of an inner world of dreams and emotions—from repression and oblivion.
To look at the trivial films that won Oscars for 1991 and compare them with “Daughters of the Dust,” a movie made outside Hollywood on a scant budget, is to laugh at the shortsightedness and money-centered vanity of the movie industry and the critics who are in thrall to it. This movie is not alone, however—many major independent films never gain traction in their time because of critical hostility or industry indifference. Dash hasn’t made another theatrical feature; the loss to history—in artistic vistas, personal influence, and career opportunities—is as grievous as the near-oblivion into which the film itself nearly sank. This movie about history ought to have been understood, in its time, as historic; the only consolation is in the long game. One of this year’s enduringly great films, “Moonlight,” was made by Barry Jenkins, an independent filmmaker who was able (albeit with long delay) to get financing with the help of Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B. That fact, in itself, is a mark of progress.