“At the turn of the century, Sea Island Gullahs, descendants of African Captives, remained isolated from the mainland of South Carolina and Georgia. As a result of their isolation, the Gullah created and maintained a distinct, imaginative, and original African American culture.”
Prior to watching Daughters of the Dust, I was completely unfamiliar with Sea Island Gullahs. To tell their story, the film (intentionally) deviates from the traditional narrative playbook, which doesn’t necessarily make for the most pleasurable movie-watching experience. However, the three key adjectives used in the opening text — “distinct,” “imaginative,” and “original” — absolutely apply here.
Set in 1902, Daughters of the Dust mostly follows the trials and tribulations of the Peazant family, whose ancestors were enslaved centuries earlier. They are led by Nana (Cora Lee Day), the family matriarch who is determined to remain on the islands while some of her younger family members contemplate moving to the mainland U.S. They are partly spurred by the return of Nana’s granddaughters/polar opposite cousins Viola (Cheryl Bruce) and Yellow Mary (Barbarao). Viola has become a devout Christian during her time away from other Gullah Islanders, while Yellow Mary has returned with a female lover named Trula (Trula Hoosier) along with the intention of saying goodbye to her family for good.
I should probably mention that the film is narrated by the Unborn Child (Kay-Lynn Warren) of Nana’s grandson Eli Peazant (Adisa Anderson) and his wife Eula (Alva Rogers), who was raped by a white man on the mainland. (Unborn Child may or may not be a result of that rape.) Meanwhile, Nana also has a forceful granddaughter-in-law named Haagar (Kaycee Moore) who considers her fellow Gullah Islanders to be backwards people and is spearheading the migration to the mainland. The only problem is that Haagar’s daughter Iona (Bahni Turpin) is in love with St. Julien Lastchild (M. Cochise Anderson), a strapping Native American who absolutely will not leave the island.
The biggest issue I had with Daughters of the Dust is that everything I just described in the previous two paragraphs — the relationships between all the main characters, what they ultimately want out of their lives — is not always readily apparent simply from watching the movie. (Thank you, Internet synopsis!) I’m all for films that challenge the viewer and leave them thinking about things well after the end credits roll. But this sort of oblique approach was especially disorienting — and a bit off-putting, in this particular case — since I knew so little of Sea Island Gullahs to begin with.
“My story begins before I was born.”
Daughters of the Dust was directed, written, and co-produced by Julie Dash, who made history by becoming the first female African American director to have a film widely distributed in the U.S. The movie is best enjoyed if you think of it more of a sort of passive nature film depicting Gullah culture that happens to have a loose narrative running through it. The movie’s eye-catching tableaux and the overall cinematography by Arthur Jafa are definitely standouts and considered to be the inspiration for Beyonce’s headline-making “Lemonade” last year.
Among the eclectic cast, Barbarao (enchanting and confident) and Bruce (who sells Viola’s conviction without coming off as preachy) make for a solid yin and yang pairing. Day commandingly holds court anytime she’s on screen, while Moore’s explosive work as Haagar enlivens every scene she is in. Mostly, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see African American woman take center stage like this and get the chance to play a wide array of character types. (Even though this movie came out 25 years ago, those opportunities aren’t exactly commonplace these days.)
While it may not have the most compelling characters or narrative, Daughters of the Dust explores the things that are left behind by certain cultures along with the traditions and items they choose to preserve.
Daughters of the Dust is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 34 mbps. The image and color palette are relatively muted, but the white/off-white wardrobe items and lush greens help maintain a fantastic and appropriate sense of elegance. While medium and panoramic shots are blemish-free and offer strong clarity, I was especially impressed by the fine detail in many of the lingering close-ups. (The beads of sweat on someone’s brow; all the lines on Nana’s face, etc.) Meanwhile, the gleaming black levels offer strong separation, which adds to the hypnotic effect of many of the film’s gorgeous and ornate compositions. In other words, Daughters of the Dust makes a spectacular Blu-ray debut thanks to a restoration that sparkles while preserving the original presentation’s crucial earthiness
The Linear PCM 2.0 mono track clearly isn’t the all-consuming, five-channel sonic experience modern home video enthusiasts have become accustomed to. However, this track is impressively free of any hissing or popping while highlighting the movie’s more entrancing qualities. John Barnes’ score — which surprisingly and effectively introduces some synth-y riffs into this early 20th century setting — is much more prominent than the movie’s occasional dialogue. And since dialogue plays such an unusually secondary role in this film, I was pretty impressed by how robust the ambient noises — crashing waves, muted insect noises in the forest — helped pick up the slack to immerse the viewer.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. Except for the commentary track, the special features can be found on a separate disc.
Audio Commentary with director Julie Dash and Michelle Materre: The filmmaker is joined by Materre, Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York City (and a Daughters of the Dust fangirl). This track — recorded for this 25th anniversary edition — is more Q&A than a traditional commentary, and it leads to some fun insights. (The “okra horns” in the film are something that one of Dash’s relatives used to do to her.) Absolutely recommend watching the film with this track, especially since the movie’s dialogue is relatively sparse and inconsequential compared to the visuals. (So you’re not missing too much if you listen to this while watching.)
Interview with Julie Dash and Dr. Stephanie Dunn, Director of Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies at Morehouse College: (1:12:08) As you’d imagine from this feature-length interview, Dash and Dunn cover everything related to Daughters of the Dust. Dash reveals she was inspired by the 1970 book “Vibration Cooking” (which she discovered in college), offers production-related anecdotes (like battling pesky sand fleas), and reflects on the impact of her film (prominently portraying African American women in white dresses on screen for the first time).
Q&A with director Julie Dash and actress Cheryl Bruce, moderated by actress Regina Taylor: (24:51) Dash and Bruce (who played Viola) offer some more good-natured stories related to the project. Dash reveals that while the movie is inspired by her family, it is not her family story. Meanwhile, Bruce was originally supposed to play Haagar before being tapped to play Viola.
Interview with cinematographer Arthur Jafa: (25:23) Very interesting insight from Jafa, who had an architecture background and was extremely inexperienced as a cinematographer at the time the movie was made. In fact, the “sample” footage Jafa filmed in the early part of production ended up being included in the final cut when he was unexpectedly hired as the movie’s official cinematographer. He also talks about finding inspiration on location in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in the early 1990s.
This 25th Anniversary restoration is the perfect opportunity to experience a worthwhile movie that hasn’t readily been available. By the filmmakers’ own admission on this disc, Daughters of the Dust has never looked or sounded better.
As for the movie itself, I suspect this film will play better on repeat viewings when you’ve had a chance to get on its leisurely and unusual wavelength.