Director: Julie Dash
Cast: Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Barbarao, Trula Hoosier
Watch Daughters of the Dust online in the UK: Netflix UK
Recently given a theatrical re-release in the UK by the British Film Institute, Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust has been lovingly restored for its 25th anniversary by the Cohen Film Collection in the States, the results of which are now available on Netflix UK.
It’s a timely arrival in many ways, partially because the film was explicitly referenced in Beyoncé’s acclaimed 2016 HBO film/music video/visual album/what-have-you, Lemonade. More important, though, is its relevance to the increasing prominent discussion of inequality when it comes to the opportunities afforded to women filmmakers, particularly women filmmakers of colour. It wasn’t until 1991 that a film by an African-American female director received anything in the way of a wide theatrical release in the United States, and Daughters of the Dust was that landmark first film. Yet, despite doing pretty well at the box office for an independent film, and having been met with a good amount of critical acclaim, Dash has struggled to get another theatrical feature off the ground. At the time of writing, her filmography since Daughters of the Dust is made up entirely of shorts and TV movies, whether intended to debut on TV or not – there was also a 12-year gap between a short of hers that debuted in 2016 and one she made in 2004.
In light of such a glaring example of industry injustice, it almost wouldn’t matter whether Daughters of the Dust were actually especially good. But it is, and Dash’s poetic imagery and style feel so unique compared to almost anything coming out of the American indie boom of the early 90s, or even now. Her setting is certainly distinctive, exploring the African-American Peazant family in 1902, as many of them prepare to leave their long-time home on the South Carolina Sea Islands for mainland America. Matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) seeks to remain, and the episodic narrative takes on the views of many characters from different generations, as they come to terms with their conflicting desires about their Gullah cultural legacy.
On a purely storytelling front, Daughters of the Dust doesn’t quite pull off a fully satisfying emotional resolution to its multi-character portrait, but that largely seems attributable to just how much of the Gullah experience Dash tries to squeeze in to the nearly two-hour film – as though there would only be this one movie to tell the entire history of a people, which, to be fair, seems to have been proven correct for the time being.
The experience outside of the narrative thrust is certainly worth exploring, however. Dash’s eye for imagery is exceptional, the sense of place – in locales and the unique dialect, inherited from West African slave ancestors – is vivid, and the sweeping score lends its own elemental rhythms to the whole affair. This is a balletic, complex film that still brings something new to the American film landscape. Let’s hope we can get a return visit to such shores sooner rather than later.
Daughters of the Dust is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.