If Daughters of the Dust still seems otherworldly some decades after its initial release, that’s only because American cinema—independent and otherwise—has paid too little attention to others’ worlds. And so the spell that this movie casts is both wondrous and something of a shame.
To be fair, the otherworldliness is due both to the film’s setting and its aesthetic. The movie takes place in 1902 on an island off the coast of Georgia, where a community of slave descendants has existed for generations, their isolation allowing for a culture that is still deeply attuned to their African ancestors. As the film begins, one of the more prominent families on the island—the Peazant clan—is having a reunion of sorts, gathering one more time before the majority of them leave the island to start a new life in the North.
Julie Dash tells her tale in a way that is technically linear, yet never follows a straight line.
This is all something you gather by intuition rather than narrative exposition, as writer-director Julie Dash tells her tale in a way that is technically linear, yet never follows a straight line. Stories from the past mix with visions of the future, while other moments—including a group of young girls dancing and clapping in white dresses on the expansive shore—manage to capture both at once. At times the film pauses to allow us to take in a theatrically composed tableau, such as the image of a nattily attired couple leaning against separate palm trees, romantically regarding each other. Some of the movie is narrated by the elderly Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), who bemoans her family’s dismissal of tradition, both physical and spiritual; at other points it is narrated by a figure identified as the “Unborn Child” (Kai-Lynn Warren). When this girl suddenly appears scampering through the woods, she moves in a stuttering manner that suggests something between slow motion and normal speed. It’s all bewilderingly beautiful, and appropriate for a people who are both out of place and out of time.
They are also, blessedly, out of whiteness. Yes, slavery casts a long shadow and is frequently referenced (perhaps most hauntingly in the folk tale of newly arrived captives who arrived on shore, looked about, turn around, and proceed to walk on water back across the ocean to Africa). Yet ultimately the Peazants notably define themselves as themselves, not in relation to any other ethnic group, white or otherwise. This means Daughters of the Dust, for all the pain it recognizes, mostly thrums with a truly independent spirit and a dreamy ebullience, best personified by the frequent frolicking on the beach, a mouth-watering communal meal, and the bubbling drums on the soundtrack. Even the central conflict, between Nana Peazant’s African traditionalism and the younger generation’s Christianity-inflected upward mobility, concludes on a note of peaceful acceptance. As most of the Peazant family sails away on a boat, Daughters of the Dust remains behind, on the shore—forever a hallmark of this little corner of black history, and of how infrequently cinema has managed to remember it.