Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Directed by Julie Dash
Dash took it upon herself to create positive depictions of strong, independent-minded black women that were otherwise lacking in American film. Her first feature-length work became the first film directed by an African-American woman to receive US distribution. Twenty-five years and several Dash films later, Daughters of the Dust became a crucial influence on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade and received a gorgeous 2K restoration (overseen by the film’s cinematographer Arthur Jafa) that is now opening in rerelease. One of the restoration’s goals was to achieve a greater and richer variety of skin tones in the film’s characters, most of who are black female members of a Gullah clan based on a sea island along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in the year 1902. As they and the men in their lives prepare for a mainland return, the film delineates their different perspectives on how to negotiate their West African heritage with their present and future existence in the United States.
Among the Peazant family’s members are Daughters’s two narrators: The elderly matriarch Nana (played by Cora Lee Day), whose gentle cadences recollect the past with an urgency for it not to be forgotten, and the Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren), a future daughter to pregnant Eula (Alva Rogers) and a kind of spirit made flesh that guides her family members during moments of confusion while looking toward the new land with hope. They and the film’s other characters represent a variety of archetypes (including West African gods), and the film moves among them all in a manner less narrative than dancelike. Intimate scenes between people conversing on sundrenched sandy shores play out against composer John Barnes’s gorgeous percussion-based score, creating an impression of choreographed movement—between people, between homelands, and between moments in history—toward points of pleasing balance. Aaron Cutler (Opens November 18 at Film Forum; Julie Dash Q&As follow screenings at 7:25pm on Friday the 18th, and 5:10pm on Saturday the 19th)