Julie Dash’s first feature film is often associated with it’s position as the first film to be directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States. It’s importance as a piece of cinematic history is well documented, it has been added into the United States National Film Registry due to it’s significance. However, Daughters of the Dust is not just an important film, but a beautiful one. The lush aesthetics have most recently served as an inspiration for Beyonce’s Lemonade, bringing the film back into mainstream consciousness.
Set in 1902 on Saint Helena Island , just off mainland South Carolina, Daughters is an account of the Peazant family as they prepare to move from their homeland to the United States proper. Conflicts and issues between the different generations arise throughout the film – the rejection of traditions, the movement towards Chrisitianity within the community, loss, age and the importance of space.
Ibo Landing, where the family resides, has been isolated from the rest of society and therefore maintains a link with the African heritage that was brought over on the slave ships, and it these traditions that are being questioned by the younger generations. Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) prays to the spirits, treasures the ancestors and preserves the importance of items such as the bottle trees that frame the houses, while her granddaughter Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) who lives in the mainland sits in a semi circle with the children of the island and tells them that they are all sinners in the eyes of the Lord.
This tension between what to leave behind as relics of the past and what to treasure is a theme that runs throughout the film. One of the younger women, Iona (Bahni Turpin) is in love with St. Julian Lastchild, a Cherokee man who wishes for her to stay with him on the island while her family move away. Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) who returns to the island carries the percieved sin of her past with her and is continually judged and rejected by her peers as she tries to reconnect with her family.
Non-linear and with dialogue in the Gullah creole dialect, with different characters providing voice-over narration, including an unborn child who is trying to reconcile her parents, the film can confuse but never becomes incomprehensible. Instead, the films moves along through the emotions of the characters and the beauty of the images on this island of magical realism. Young women dancing on the beach to unheard music, long cream dresses flowing in the wind, men posing against the backdrop of palm dress, the intricately decorated houses with drawings covering the walls, every shot of the film is a visual delight.
The desire to move on and the conflict with losing a place, a homeland that allows the Peazant family to continue and preserve their traditions speaks to a universal theme of migration and memory, making this a film that more than deserves your time.