black filmmakers · black history · Uncategorized

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Writing about a critically acclaimed film that inspired Beyonce’s Lemonade is not an easy feat. What exactly am I supposed to say about Daughters of the Dust that is new or original? I felt overwhelmed because there was so much I loved, so much to say, but I didn’t know how to begin. Its visual poetry is staggering – saturated with color and breathtaking scenery. The film plunged my eyes into deep sunsets, dappled forest floors, and crystal blue waters. Its a film populated by people with rich, gorgeous black and brown skin. It is a masterpiece by celebrated filmmaker Julie Dash.

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Living off the coast of the mainlands of South Carolina and Georgia is the Peazant family, Gullah people who have retained their culture after the slave trade. In 1902, some of the family is preparing to leave. And they run the risk of losing their culture once they settle on the mainland. The film never leaves the island however. We see the family depart on a boat, but we do not join them at their destination.

The center of the Peazant family is matriarch Nana, whose old ways and wisdom are dismissed by her family. The women are Christians who disparage her pagan beliefs and rituals. Nana Peazant will remain on the island and she is adamant they do as well. Meanwhile, a cousin, Yellow Mary, has returned but she does not find favor with the family. They whisper malicious gossip about her, and even though it reaches her ears, it doesn’t wear her down.

I find myself so drawn to these kinds of stories, where elderly women/matriarchs rule the family. There’s a strong matriarchal presence in Pixar’s Coco. And in these stories, characters learn more about their ancestry and family line. Miguel actually gets to meet his deceased relatives and hears his great-great grandmother’s story firsthand. Likewise, in Moana, the eponymous heroine restores balance to her island home after she rediscovers the legacy of her people. She is guided by her wise grandmother. And Te Fiti is the mother goddess from whom life sprung.

 

I’ve heard the stories about my maternal grandmother so many times but I never tire of them. If she had lived past her fifties, she would be our family’s matriarch and center. If she had warnings or lessons for us, would we heed them? Or would we be as flippant about them as Nana Peazant’s family is? Nana Peazant is a keen, sharp woman. Even when her relatives laugh at her or dismiss her, she is not silenced. She remains a stalwart figure, bridging the past to the present. The future is murky. The family doesn’t know what lays ahead of them on the mainland, and they ignore Nana Peazant’s warnings. We have to imagine their fate.

It’s remarkable that this film is so evocative, both in its visual and non visual language. Its richness and depth inform the characters and their individual journeys. Watching it is akin to a transcendent experience, really. There’s something so otherworldly about it, even as its grounded in a firm human reality. Earthy is the best way to describe it; earthy and still ethereal. Small wonder that Beyonce borrowed from it.

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Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya Coleman in Beyonce’s Lemonade

The still above is both haunting and powerful. These teenage girls gaze directly into the camera, so high above the ground, aloof and tranquil.

“The use of playful images of black women climbing trees and, specifically in Daughters of the Dust, the use of the trees’ seclusion as a confessional space show the importance of nature to these black women’s lives.” –Stephanie Phillips

The women are clothed in sweeping white gowns which call to mind the girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Those dresses juxtaposed against the trees and sand, white against brown, green and red make for some very striking images. Normally we’d picture women dressed like that indoors, prim and proper, sitting down to tea. But here the women climb trees and dance by the water in their long white dresses.

Stories about black women, told by black women, are rare today, although signs point toward improvement.

Few films are as immersive. Daughters of the Dust is a sprawling epic that still feels contained. These black women are daughters of the earth; immovable and enduring.

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