Daughters of the Dust is a 1991 American film written and directed by Julie Dash. Set at the turn of the twentieth century in the Gullah Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, Daughters of the Dust is the fictional account of the Peazant family on the eve of some members’ departure for the mainland and a new life. Major themes include the tension between tradition and change, family, memory, and voice. Arthur Jafa won the cinematography award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival for his work on the film. In 2004 the Film Preservation Board honoured Daughters of the Dust with a place in The National Film Registry.
Daughters of the Dust, ‘a lovely visual ballad about Sea Island blacks in 1902’, is the first feature film by an African American woman to gain major theatrical distribution in the United States (Kauffman 1992). As an impressionistic narrative about a little-known Black linguistic community called the Gullah, Daughters could be seen as not merely an art film, but as a ‘foreign language film’ due to the characters’ Gullah patois and Dash’s unique film language. Dash said, ‘We took an Afrocentric approach to everything: from the set design to the costumes, from the hair to the way the make-up was put on’ (Boyd 1991). Further, Dash uses a style, which filmmaker Yvonne Welbon calls ‘cinematic jazz’. It resonates with the fragmentary cultural forms associated with the use of collage (i.e. Romare Bearden, quilting traditions) in the African Diaspora. Such aesthetic choices typically run counter to normative American film practices, which are more likely to favour coherence and a trajectory of transformation. For example, classic Hollywood films tend to be characterised by close focus on a single leading white man, who faces clearly defined obstacles that he overcomes due to transformations in his character. By contrast, Dash uses a wide lens to capture many characters in long takes, emphasising their relationships to each other and to cinematic space rather than exclusively showing them in action. In the film, there are ‘no white people – that alone can be disturbing for some’ (Jones 1992). Then, Daughters’ editing pattern is marked by simultaneity-over-continuity, which is effected through the use of scenic tableaux. They show what characters are doing in different spaces at the same time, though not necessarily with the same implications of parallel editing where two lines of action are shown together in order to create dramatic tension. Finally, ‘it was shot on super 35mm film so it would look better. And of course we used Agfa-Gevaert film instead of Kodak because black people look better on Agfa’ (Boyd 1991). The prestige Daughters has gained since its 1991 release represents a significant achievement for Dash, African American film and culture as well as American independent filmmaking in terms of both form and content.
Daughters concerns the fictional Peazant family, who are part of an actual ethnic community located among the Sea Islands, a region composed of barrier islands that extend along the Eastern coastline from South Carolina to Georgia. Most of the characters in the film are Gullah, a group that has been studied and celebrated for their unique African American culture. In terms of language, religion and cuisine, the Gullah are said to have retained a greater degree of continuity with West African cultures than did the slaves on the mainland, due to their relative geographical isolation on the islands during slavery. Thus, Daughters is an essential African American text about key issues of migration and cultural retention. The film seeks both historical authority and poetic expressivity on questions of identity and location within black American culture, especially where they intersect with formations of black womanhood.
The film opens on a somewhat didactic note with opening titles that introduce viewers to the Gullah. By contrast, the sequence that follows mystifies acts of ritual and religion as well as fragments of family history through disjointed tableaux in which the viewer sees an unnamed fully clothed figure bathing in an undistinguishable body of water and a pair of hands releasing dust into the air. These poetic images, which represent the Gullah’s ‘old ways’ are later explained through dialogue but initially they lend the film an exotic and mysterious impression. Subsequent sequences focus on the domestic. For all the visual richness and emotional intensity, the actual content is simple: the extended Peazant family makes preparations for a supper to mark the eve of their migration to the mainland. On this day of both crisis and celebration, introspection and confrontation, family members of different generations question each other about what will be lost and gained personally and culturally when they leave the islands. These narrative themes are analogous to the issues of identity and location that have preoccupied African American intellectual history in works such as W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Dash condenses these broad concerns into the intimacy of family drama. The ambivalence the Peazants feel about the old ways and what new ways await them on the mainland permeates every scene. One of the ways this tension manifests is in the presence of visual technologies in the film.
The significant and repeated appearances of three visual devices constitute a motif, which embodies the film’s reflexivity: the kaleidoscope, the still camera, and the stereoscope. The fact that these devices arrive from the mainland suggest a range of possible meanings from anxieties over documenting the self, the intrusion of observing eyes outside the community and the lure of new worldly pleasures on the mainland. In the film, the kaleidoscope acts as a metonym of Daughters’ style. Mr Snead, who is the family photographer, introduces the kaleidoscope early in the film, describing it as a blend of science and imagination. Through point of view shots, spectators see the ways in which the kaleidoscope creates abstractions of shape, colour and movement and they are aligned with the characters’ delight in such formalist experimentation. These kaleidoscopic images refer to the film’s impressionistic, fragmentary structure, which is composed of semi-discrete tableaux arranged in an elliptical or spiral pattern where images and themes return but not to the exact same place. These images contrast with the documentary function and style of Mr Snead’s family portraits.
Meanwhile, the stereoscope, no less a device of the imagination, is used to introduce footage fragments possibly orphaned from a larger newsreel or ethnographic work. Whereas a man of science and the family documentarian introduces the kaleidoscope into the film, it is the mystical character of the Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren) who uses the stereoscope. ‘Sent by the ancestors to restore her father’s faith in the old ways’, this character is Eli and Eula’s yet-to-be-born daughter, except that she appears from the future when she is about eight years old; invisible to the other characters, only Mr Snead and the spectators can see her when he looks through his camera (Jones 1992). The Unborn Child transforms the use of the stereoscope. It was a late nineteenth-century entertainment used to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image, however, in Daughters it is an imaginative pathway for animating postcards into motion pictures, which perhaps represent the future that awaits the family when they migrate.
Started on a budget of $200,000, Daughters took ten years to complete, and finished with $800,000. In Dash’s book Daughters of the Dust: The Making of An African American Woman’s Film, she explains that her film took so long to complete in part because its structure, themes and characters nonplussed industry representatives from whom she sought financing. Once Daughters was released, however, the film found its audiences and went on to receive a number of significant awards. Shot by Arthur Jafa, Daughters won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival (1991). The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame recognised it as Best Film (1992) and that same year it received the Maya Deren Award from the American Film Institute. Dash’s achievements and tenacity as independent director, writer and producer earned her The Oscar Micheaux Award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1991). In 2004, Daughters was placed on the prestigious National Film Registry of the National Film Preservation Board. Defined by Dash as a black woman’s film, Daughters’ awards mark its status within intersecting independent, African American, American and female audiences and facilitates further the reaches of Dash’s visionary work.
While the film’s recognition is based on its uniqueness, Daughters of the Dust is embedded within the history of black independent films through its financing and aesthetics as well as through its casting. Many of the film’s key roles are played by actors who would be familiar to audiences of black independent films: Cora Lee Day (Nana Peazant) played Oshun, a deity in Yoruba spiritual cosmology, in Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977) and Molly in Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979). Opposite Day in the Gerima film was Barbara O. Jones in the role of Dorothy. Jones appeared in Child of Resistance (1972) by Gerima, in Diary of an African Nun (1977) by Dash and in A Powerful Thang (1991) by Zeinabu irene Davis. Trula Hoosier (Trula, Yellow Mary’s companion) appeared in Sidewalk Stories (1989) by Charles Lane, and Adisa Anderson (Eli Peazant) worked in A Different Image (1982) by Alile Sharon Larkin. Kaycee Moore (Haagar Peazant) appeared in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977/2007) and in Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), which Burnett wrote. Tommy Hicks (Mr Snead) had been seen in Spike Lee’s early films Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983) and She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Significantly, these actors’ prominence and the complex characters they created in Daughters of the Dust did not cross over to mainstream films. Their careers tend toward prominent roles in black independent films but minor roles in television or mainstream films. In using actors from the black independent film world, Dash established the film’s aesthetic lineage and its target audiences outside the territory of Hollywood and dominant formations of celebrity.
Daughters is further linked with feature films by black women, which would include French director Euzahn Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley (1983) and American director Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982) among others. Later films such as Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) and Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou (1997) share Daughters’ thematic concerns with memory, history, identity and visual storytelling. Further, the 1980s and 1990s saw film and literature sharing discursive concerns. Novelists such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1983) and Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) explored black women’s identity and African American memory through stories that focused on family dynamics and women’s friendships. The circulation of black women’s novels doubtless influenced the creation and reception of Daughters, which began its life as a novel, and the film helped to articulate black feminist and womanist frameworks cinematically. Dash has said that she wanted to ‘make films for and about black women, to redefine AfricanAmerican women’ (Chan 1990). InMaking of An African American Woman’s Film, Dash gives the following hierarchy of desired or expected audiences: black women, the black community and white women. Dash hopes black women will be the film’s main audience, advocates and consumers because it intervenes specifically in the history of black female invisibility and misrepresentation in the cinema.
While Daughters is a black woman’s film it is still part of the long history of American independent and experimental filmmaking by men and white women that pushes against received traditions and industry standards. For instance, Daughters has much in common aesthetically with films such as Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1964), John Cassevettes’s Shadows (1959), and William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968). These semi-documentary and jazz-influenced films depart from dominant presentations of black identities and, each in its own way, experimented with merging film’s formal, poetic expressivity and its social status as a bearer of objective visual evidence. Cool World and Shadows both depicted African American urban subcultures, teenagers and jazz musicians, respectively, while Daughters focused on rural communities. However, all three works avoid the black-white paradigm, in which the presentation or formation of Black identity in the film would be limited to its opposition to whiteness within adversarial American race relations – not that the effects of American racism are entirely avoided. Daughters, as the title of Dash’s post-production book about the film indicates, was strongly motivated by the director’s desire to bring African American women’s stories to the screen. However, the film’s aesthetics link it with significant independent films that are not explicitly concerned with black women. All these films take on broader themes of identity, location and film form.
Certainly, the success of Steven Spielberg’s blackwomen-centred film adaptation The Color Purple (1985) opened up possibilities for a film like Daughters as it likely did for Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 1995). Yet Color and Waiting followed the traditional narrative arc used in mainstream films while Daughters has a more languid, diffuse narrative structure. Daughters shares some content with The Color Purple or Waiting to Exhale but since it is done in a very different cinematic style, these films may not appeal to or reach the same audiences. The Color Purple was released widely and played in mainstream multiplexes while Daughters of the Dust’s release was limited and it counts New York City’s art-house theatre Film Forum as one of its early venues. Daughters of the Dust and the black independent films that it references through the cast share the conundrum of reaching out to black audiences through their content but being embraced by mostly white audiences who view these films in the art-house settings to which their forms and perceptions of their inaccessibility have segregated them. Meanwhile, Dash calls for various film audiences and industry professionals to recognise the universe within black women’s stories and identify with black female characters. She says, ‘There’s just a wide array of different characters and people and types and professions that have never before been depicted on the screen. You know, unfortunately Hollywood relies on the old standard stereotypes that are a bit worn and frayed around the edges at this point. But black women are everything and they do everything, and they have a whole lot of different concerns that are just not paying the rent, having babies, worrying about the next fix or the next john. I mean, there’s a whole world in here’ (Chan 1990).
Cast and Crew:
Country: USA. Production Company: Geechee Girls/American Playhouse. Director: Julie Dash. Producer: Julie Dash. Screenwriter: Julie Dash. Cinematographer: Arthur Jafa. Editors: Joseph Burton and Amy Carey. Music: John Barnes. Cast: Cora Lee Day (Nana Peazant), Alva Rogers (Eula Peazant), Barbara O. Jones (Yellow Mary), Trula Hoosier (Trula), Umar Abdurrahamn (Bilal Muhammad), Adisa Anderson (Eli Peazant), Kaycee Moore (Haagar Peazant), Bahni Turpin (Iona Peazant), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Viola Peazant), Tommy Redmond Hicks (Mr Snead), Malik Farrakhan (Daddy Mack Peazant), Vertamae Grosvenor (Hair Braider).]
Jacqueline Bobo (ed.), Black Women Film and Video Artists, New York, Routledge, 1998.
Valerie Boyd, ‘Daughters of the Dust’, American Visions, February 1991, pp. 46–49.
Vera Chan, ‘The Dust of History’, Mother Jones, November/December 1990, p. 60.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, New York, Routledge, 2000.
Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, New York, New Press, 1992.
Jacquie Jones, ‘Film Review’, Cineaste, December 1992, p. 68.
Stanley Kauffman, ‘Films Worth Seeing’, New Republic, 30 March 1992, p. 26.
Jacqueline Stewart, ‘Negroes Laughing at Themselves? Black Spectatorship and the Performance of Urban Modernity’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 29, No. 4, 2003, pp. 650–77.
Winston-Dixon Wheeler and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds), Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader, London, Routledge, 2002.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.