Daughters of the Dust
Julie Dash’s debut film turned 25 last year, but even without the anniversary this sumptuous BFI restoration would still probably exist. In the late 2010s, the film has become more relevant than ever. It is an inspiration for a new generation of African-American directors – Ava DuVernay has repeatedly cited it as a formative influence, and the swooning sensuality of Moonlight would be unthinkable without Dash’s example. It was also, famously, a key source for Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade. ‘Love Drought’, in particular, clearly, alludes to the real-life historical event of the Igbo Landing, discussed towards the end of Daughters of the Dust.
In one of a fine selection of essays in the accompanying booklet, Gaylene Gould suggests Lemonade could be read as a sequel to Daughters of the Dust. Coupled with the Igbo Rising reference, Beyonce fans watching the film for the first time might find the end more familiar than the beginning. This is nothing if not appropriate. From Nana (Cora Lee Day)’s mystical-Biblical opening narration (“I am the first and the last…”), Daughters of the Dust delights in messing with the audience’s sense of time and history. Indeed, when the main cast arrive in a boat wearing Merchant-Ivory costumes alongside the caption “1902”, white audiences might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing is some kind of alternative history narrative: steampunk meets Afrofuturism. But it is all very real.
Dash was inspired by her own family’s history. As a child, she was curious about her father’s unusual accent, and she found that he was a member of the Gullah. The Gullah were the descendants of slaves who settled in isolated island communities off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Insulated from white America, they developed their own distinctive dialect, religion, folklore and art forms. Daughters of the Dust’s plot-light, voiceover-heavy script is the sort of storytelling that often gets called “non-traditional”; in fact, it’s far more traditional than conventional Hollywood narrative. Dash was adamant that any film about the Gullah would have to draw heavily from their own oral storytelling culture.
What this means, in practice, is a sense of continuity and eclecticism. For all that the community in Daughters of the Dust is facing a challenge to its traditions – one of its own, Yellow Mary, has returned from a traumatic stay in Cuba with a female lover and some new ideas – the tone is never melodramatic. However this current dilemma works out, the film’s focus on heritage and community makes it clear that something will survive, that “ancestors and the womb are the same”, as Nana puts it. Indeed, towards the end, we hear the future in the form of a voiceover from an unborn baby – a baby who, in an uncanny moment, seems to appear in a photograph taken before she is born.
I was reminded here of David Lynch, specifically that scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me where Annie seems to tell Laura Palmer about events following her own death. Daughters of the Dust also reminded me of Terrence Malick, although not enough to say Malick was definitely an influence on Dash. In fact, rather than being influenced by Malick’s canon (which, in 1991, constituted all of two films) Daughters of the Dust seems to anticipate the elder director’s recent work. From The New World onwards Malick has shared Daughters of the Dust’s desire to let storytelling bleed into song, poetry and choreography, as well as its compulsive stylisation and balletic camera movements. Fans of Malick’s late style who nevertheless find the likes of The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups to be too heavy on the rich-white-guy navel-gazing are certainly in for a treat here.
Dash is surrounded by remarkable collaborators – John Barnes’s music, merging synthesisers and African rhythms, deserves plaudits – but none are more remarkable than cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who takes the film’s sub-million dollar budget and somehow makes it into one of the most restlessly, glowingly beautiful films ever made. More than just dazzle, though, the cinematography is a moral statement. Dash’s compositions favour group shots over close-ups, and Jafa’s luminous colours find beauty in everything from moss-draped trees to Nana’s wrinkled hands, stained with the dye of the plants she picked as a slave. A cruder film would make either Nana or Yellow Mary into a villain, but despite having completely opposing worldviews they both come across very sympathetically here, and part of that is Jafa’s camera sanctifying them both with attention and glamour.
Daughters of the Dust was the first film by an African-American woman to receive a mainstream theatrical release. The qualifiers in that statement are necessary because it was nearly pipped to the post by a very different project, Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. The films are fascinatingly different – Harris’s is urban and fiercely modern, whereas Dash’s takes place on beaches and woods and seems to exist beguilingly out of time. As with the anniversary, though, Daughters of the Dust’s historical status really is the least interesting thing about it. What matters is not that Dash won a race, it’s that she produced a truly sui generis work that can sit comfortably alongside explorations of memory and community by Tarkovsky, Resnais or any other sanctified European arthouse auteur you might care to name.
The BFI’s extras are exactly what such a film deserves. Dash is interviewed no less than four times – in the booklet, on the commentary track, alongside actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce and in a conversation which is the length of a short feature (75 minutes) in itself. Arthur Jafa also contributes a lengthy, valuable reminiscence.