Screen Gems

Daugh­ters of the Dust

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

“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

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