Daughters of the Dust
“The ancestor and the womb, they one and the same.” — Nana Peazant
Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust, the first movie written and directed by an African-American woman to have a general theatrical release, is back. Buoyed by a Beyoncé boost (the singer draws on the film’s early-1900s aesthetics in her 2016 video album
Lemonade), along with a digital restoration and new color grading, this mesmerizing tone poem returns to theaters at an opportune national moment. A vital document of African-American tradition and connectivity, it tells the story of a Lowcountry family on the verge of “crossing over” not only from their Sea Island home to the mainland, but from the spectre of slavery to the promise of the future. In the course of this journey, they inhabit a dual existence of first and last, present and past.
In a style more circular than linear, the film is narrated by an unborn child whose reflections are crosscut by the musings of her family matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day). On a dusty beach off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in August 1902, the extended Peazant family is preparing one last gumbo supper. (There are also crabs, clams, shrimp, cornbread, rice, and fresh tomatoes on offer — all part and parcel of the movie’s visual feast.) After four generations on Dawtuh Island working on the cotton, rice, and indigo plantations, these descendants of West African slaves are heading north to begin a new life — but first they must grapple with the wounds of their history. Nana Peazant represents that past: Entrenched in the old folkways, with her roots, flowers, and charms, she refuses to leave, spending long hours in the island cemetery insisting that “it’s up to the living to watch over the dead.”
Meanwhile, her progeny are battling the tough problems of modernity. Her grandson Eli (Adisa Anderson) is coming to terms with his wife Eula’s (Alva Rogers) rape by a white man and her subsequent pregnancy; he’s also working to advocate for anti-lynching legislation. A granddaughter, the disgraced and glamorous Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), has returned with her girlfriend (Trula Hoosier) in tow for one last visit; she’s fled a life of prostitution in Cuba and is on her way to Nova Scotia. Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), another granddaughter and a devout Christian, has brought a photographer, Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), to document the family’s life on the island before they leave forever. Through the family’s dissonant recollections, the film floats between time, lingering on the day of the final feast as the past bubbles up and floods through, underscoring the contradictions of the Peazants’ path. The bright haze of memory and hope is telegraphed by Arthur Jafa’s sumptuous cinematographic dreamscape, which juxtaposes the women’s white high-necked cotton dresses (reminiscent of those in 1975’s Picnic at
Hanging Rock) and indigo-stained fingers against the windswept backdrop of the sea beyond.
The story’s hybridity — of historical scars and clean slates, black and white, island and mainland, African and American — feels as relevant as ever to the American experience. (It’s no wonder that Daughters of the Dust was selected in 2004 for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the first — and to this day, the only — film by a black woman to be chosen for the archive.) In “Formation,” Beyoncé sings, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama,” celebrating her own racial heritage in an extension of the movie’s enduring message. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this week, Sen. John Lewis gave a speech in which he mentioned his boyhood fondness for the inventions offered by the Sears Roebuck catalog, which his family called a “wish book.” Guess what other family flips through that same wish book, dreaming of the future? — Molly Boyle
Ain’t I a woman: center, Cora Lee Day; top right, Day and Barbara-O