A call to bear wit­ness

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

DAUGH­TERS OF THE DUST Di­rected by Julie Dash. Star­ring Cora Lee Day, Bar­bara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Ab­dur­ra­hamn, Adisa An­der­son, Kaycee Moore Club/12A, IFI Dublin, QFT Belfast, 108mins You can thank the Bey­hive. In 1991, Julie Dash’s lav­ish, po­etic

Daugh­ters of the Dust be­came the first movie di­rected by a black woman to get a wide the­atri­cal re­lease. Made for $800,000 (funded by PBS’s Amer­i­can Playhouse), af­ter ev­ery stu­dio had turned Dash down, this ex­tra­or­di­nary film au­gurs con­tem­po­rary de­bates within fem­i­nism and Afro­cen­trism.

It’s de­pic­tion of mo­cambo life in an en­clave beyond slav­ery pre-dates the re­sis­tance nar­ra­tives of 12 Years a Slave, Django Un­chained and Birth of a Na­tion by decades. The film, too, is a mo­cambo, a star­tlingly unique piece of sto­ry­telling that tears up the rule­book: “I didn’t want to tell a his­tor­i­cal drama about African-Amer­i­can women in the same way that I had seen other dra­mas,” said Dash in the mak­ing-of doc Touch­ing Our Own Spirit (2000). “I de­cided to work with a dif­fer­ent type of nar­ra­tive struc­ture… the typ­i­cal male-ori­ented western nar­ra­tive struc­ture was not ap­pro­pri­ate for this par­tic­u­lar film. So I let the story un­ravel and re­veal it­self in a way in which an African Gul­lah would tell the story.”

Against expectation, Dash’s non-lin­ear film is both ac­ces­si­ble and quotable. Daugh­ters of

the Dust has gath­ered canon­i­cal mo­men­tum since its orig­i­nal 1991 re­lease: it was se­lected for preser­va­tion at the US Na­tional Film Registry in 2004, and has in­spired sev­eral books, in­clud­ing a se­quel, writ­ten in 1997. It’s reap­pear­ance in cin­e­mas is, of course, largely down to Bey­oncé’s Lemon­ade. The vis­ual al­bum lib­er­ally pays homage to Daugh­ters.

Once again, Dash’s tale about a Gul­lah fam­ily in 1902 is bang on trend. (Now if Queen Bey could pro­duce the sec­ond fea­ture Dash never got to make, we’ll be sorted..) In an era when women ac­count for just one third of speak­ing roles, it’s still strik­ing to sit through a work wherein the ma­jor­ity of close-ups in the film are on the women, and most of the dia­logue is spo­ken by women and girls. The Peazant fam­ily have lived on Gul­lah is­land since their an­ces­tors were brought there as en­slaved peo­ple cen­turies ago. They re­tain West African cus­toms and a unique cre­ole di­alect, but the com­mu­nity is var­ied enough to in­clude a Mus­lim and a Na­tive Amer­i­can.

As the film opens, many of the is­lan­ders are pre­par­ing to mi­grate to the main­land. Girls play in trees. Men talk on the beach. Fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing the re­li­gious Vi­o­let (Ch­eryl Lynn Bruce) and the re­turn­ing highly sexed Yel­low Mary (Bar­bara-O), bicker. An un­born child – the fu­ture daugh­ter of Eli (Adisa An­der­son) and Eula (Alva Rogers) – nar­rates.

Eli is con­flicted as Eula has been raped by a white man on the main­land and Eli does not know if the child is his. The is­land’s ma­tri­arch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), scoffs: “You can’t get back what you never owned. She never be­longed to you. She mar­ried you.” The oth­ers worry about Nana re­main­ing on the is­land “… like she’s some­body who ain’t got no peo­ple”.

The younger gen­er­a­tion no longer wish to be “like those old Africans off the boat”. They look to­ward moder­nity. “The news­pa­per said it was a time for ev­ery­one; the rich and the poor, the power and the pow­er­less.’

White dresses, indigo dye­ing, and azure skies make for an ex­tra­or­di­nary aes­thetic – DoP Arthur Jafa won the top cin­e­matog­ra­phy prize at Sun­dance in 1991. Dreamy mu­si­cal com­po­si­tions from John Barnes (not that John Barnes: don’t ex­pect the An­field Rap) add to the vis­ual po­etry. Dash drew on her own fam­ily his­tory to fash­ion Daugh­ters of

the Dust and through­out, there’s an un­shak­able sense that the viewer is be­ing called to bear wit­ness. Heed the call.

Lav­ish, po­etic: Julie Dash’s Daugh­ters of the Dust

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