Director Julie Dash based the film on her Gullah ancestors.
Last year’s Academy Awards were tagged #SoWhiteOscars, but not long ago filmmaker Julie Dash faced #SoWhiteMaleFilm, period.
Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) was the first feature film by an African American woman to receive wide theatrical distribution in the U.S. The Library of Congress selected it as a landmark independent film for the National Film Registry in 2004. The UW-Cinematheque screens the digital restoration of Daughters on Feb. 17, introducing it to a generation that might be unaware of the obstacles Dash overcame as a black female filmmaker.
Dash cites her father’s Gullah family as the inspiration for Daughters. The Gullah are descendants of slaves on the coastal Sea Islands who developed their own distinct culture and dialect of English creolized from West African languages.
When the film begins, it’s 1902, and the Peazant family prepares to leave their generational home at Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island, Georgia. The extended Peazant family, including some who have already moved North, assemble for one final meal together before they depart.
Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), the matriarch, insists on remaining at Ibo Landing to preserve the old ways and maintain a connection to their ancestors. Grandson Eli (Adisa Anderson) and his wife Eula (Alva Rogers) are expecting a child with an uncertain paternity. That unborn child, linking past and future, appears as a spirit and provides voice-over narration for the film (Kay-Lynn Warren).
Dash emerged during the “L.A. Rebellion” of African American filmmakers coming out of UCLA’s film school. Led by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and Haile Gerima (Bush Mama), these filmmakers sought a wider range of images and stories of African Americans, and explored alternative forms of storytelling. While Dash could have made a linear family melodrama, Daughters plays out like an unfamiliar ritual, the significance of which we have to learn, along with its rules, as we watch.
The Peazants speak in Gullah, which is challenging to understand at times (one voice-over has subtitles). But along with the deliberately paced lyrical beach imagery, that spoken language provides a rhythm essential to the culture that Dash has affectionately re-created.
After 26 years, Daughters of the Dust remains fresh and vibrant, perhaps because few subsequent African American directors have shared the L.A. Rebellion’s vision while working in the mainstream. By abandoning recognizable forms, Dash reminds us that change must be preceded by seeing things anew.