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Daughters of the Dust | Blu-ray Review

Daughters of the Dust Potent words open up Julie Dash’s masterful debut, the landmark independent feature Daughters of the Dust (1991). A matriarch, grappling with her family’s (including two generations of descendants on the isolated Gullah Islands) decision to abandon the ways of their people and assimilate into the cultural heritage awaiting them on the mainland of South Carolina and Georgia, sets Dash’s poetry in motion. “I am the silence you cannot understand,” she says amidst a number of descriptive dichotomies pertaining to her identity, her culture, and her position in a world on the verge of drastic evolution for her direct descendants.

Dash’s film has the distinction of being the first film directed by a black woman to reach theatrical distribution in the United States, a fact which will accompany discussions of her film until we know cinema no longer (and let it be noted, this is not the first feature directed by a black woman, as Kathleen Collins’ 1982 title Losing Ground, recently restored courtesy of Milestone Films, holds this prominence, one of many notable projects from black artists obscured or forgotten). But unlike its despairing matriarch, Dash’s film may be a first, but is certainly not the last. Premiering at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival (where it won the award for Best Cinematography) the film was restored and re-released in late 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival before a limited theatrical release.

In 1902 on Ibo Landing of St. Simon’s Island, part of the Gullah Islands off the coast of South Carolina, members of the Peazant clan are about to undergo a dramatic shift. Matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) recalls when her people were brought to the island as slaves from Africa, and she refuses to leave it behind, abstaining from the journey to the mainland with the rest of her relations, who are fed up with her belief system in African and Caribbean rituals. Tragedy has also recently struck her family, as daughter-in-law Eula (Alva Rogers) was raped on the mainland by a white man, leaving her husband Eli (Adisa Anderson) to no longer regard her or his child as his own. The unborn child narrates the strife of the family, which includes the last visit of cousins, the pious Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and the rebellious Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) who journey to Ibo Landing to say goodbye as the rest of their family readies for departure.

Its narrative unraveling in the timespan of a little over a day, Daughters of the Dust becomes a languid string of poetic monologues, brief vignettes of characters and the troubles and dilemmas they must lay to rest before they make their peace with the island. Shared narration strikes a poignant tone, particularly of Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant and the spirit of Eula’s unborn child (reminiscent of War Witch, 2012), a bi-racial product of rape.

A strong sense of pride and tradition marks these various conversations, as well as the extreme sense of conflict in breaking from the past to embrace a certain future. Their culture has already been tainted by the temptations and restrictions of what’s awaiting them from afar. Cousin Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who has the forethought to hire a photographer to document their journey in Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks, in a kind of Keith Carradine in Pretty Baby capacity), is a staunch Christian living in Philadelphia. But the permissiveness on the mainland has also brought back Yellow Mary (a striking Barbara-O) who wishes to say goodbye to the island, in tow with her lover Trula (Trula Hoosier). Combative and domineering, the haughty Yellow Mary is clearly the family black sheep, a strong willed woman already tired of the mores on the mainland with dreams of heading further north into Nova Scotia.

The detail and texture of Daughters of the Dust is thanks in part to DP Arthur Jafa (whose other major 1990s narrative credit was Spike Lee’s underrated Crooklyn, 1994), who captures a languorous, dreamy tone. Interest in Cohen Media Group’s restoration of the film was enhanced by the release of Beyonce’s 2016 visual album Lemonade, which pays homage to the white-robed costume designs by Arline Burks Gant. In turn, this pop culture reconfiguration creates a significant meta homage to the remembrance and importance of Dash’s film.

In a sequence in the graveyard with her grandson Eli, Nana uses ancestry as a metaphor for the womb. “It’s up to the living to keep in touch with the dead,” she advises, concerned her children will forget the culture and language they’ve come from. However, as hypnotic as Dash’s mise-en-scene is, not all of the performers are as equally adept with the film’s Gullah dialect. For as persuasive as Cora Lee Day or Barbara-O or tend to be, Alva Rogers sometimes breaks the film’s ambience, particularly with an extensive monologue in the finale which is supposed to be filled with anguish but instead comes off as distractingly exaggerated.

More of a tone poem than traditional narrative cinema, Dash challenges conceptions of the linear form, itself a patriarchal tradition of white, heteronormative storytelling, and structurally Daughters of the Dust is successful in presenting a uniquely challenging example in storytelling, recalling the refreshing rebelliousness of a bell hooks in her unwillingness to frame her story with familiar tropes.

John Barnes provides an effortlessly impressionistic score deftly underlining the film’s significant mood (he would go on to compose scores for a number of notable 90s titles, from Bebe’s Kids to CB4 to the Wayans Bros. spoof Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood). Dash’s command of elusive expression unveils a thrilling, immersive mystique of her subjects, not unlike a tone Jane Campion would strike in some of her films, particularly in 1993’s The Piano.

Disc Review:

To coincide with the film’s 25th Anniversary in 2016, Cohen Media Group restored the film, presented here in 1.85:1. The transfer has been significantly restored to its former glory, with Jafa’s frames and Barnes’ score providing a haunting concoction of blustery beach side visualizations. Several notable extra features, including audio commentary from Julie Dash and Michelle Materre are included.

Dash & Dunne:
Julie Dash is interviewed by Dr. Stephane Dunn, Director of Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies at Morehouse College in this new hour plus segment which examines Dash’s influences, her debut, and filmography.

Q+A – Dash & Bruce:
Actress Regina Taylor moderates this twenty-four minute Q+A with Julie Dash and Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Jafa Interview:
Cinematographer Arthur Jafa discusses his accidental career as a DP (his initial interest was architecture) in this twenty-five minute interview.

Final Thoughts:

A seminal entry in the cinematic canon, behold the distinguished directorial debut of Julie Dash in the best possible version available.

Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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