“I am the first and the last.”
Hollywood is known as a place that sucks in young talent, converts their dreams to money, and then spits them out again soon after. First films are pretty frequent, but fewer get the opportunity to make a second, let alone a career in Hollywood. Which is why when we think about diversity in Hollywood we need to look beyond the obvious marquee names and think about who gets different kinds of opportunities. Obviously it’s not an open-and-shut case, but it feels important to contrast a couple of films released within a few months of each other during the height of the American independent cinema boom. The first is Richard Linklater’s Slacker. It’s a comedic drama with a weird structure that follows a series of characters around Austin. It grossed a little over a million dollars. The second is Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, a drama that uses a weird structure to tell the story of three generations of women at the turn of the 20th century. It too made a little over a million dollars at the box office, despite being the first theatrical feature film by an African-American woman released to theaters. Richard Linklater went on almost immediately to acclaim and decent budgets, forging a weird career that has allowed him to work with A-list actors and pretty good money. Julie Dash, however, had to publish her sequel to Daughters of the Dust as a book because she couldn’t convince anyone to fund a second film. To stay behind the camera, her career has been confined to music videos and made-for-TV features. Though hailed by critics, Daughters of the Dust has been largely unavailable and unheralded on home video (despite being added to the Library of Congress’s film registry in 2004).
Daughters of the Dust might have remained a footnote in the history of African-American cinema, but then Beyoncé went and released Lemonade. Eagle-eyed fans were quick to point out, and Bey herself quick to acknowledge, that many of the shots in her “visual album” owed their inspiration to Dash’s feature. By coincidence, Cohen Media Group were in the process of remastering the film for a theatrical and home video release. With renewed interest thanks to Queen Bey, the film was heralded on its 25th anniversary re-release, and now makes its hi-def debut, to equal acclaim if this Blu-ray is judged fairly.
Daughters of the Dust takes place on St. Stephen’s Island off the coast of South Carolina. It is the home of the Gullah people. When a number of West African groups were brought to these islands (off the coast of both South Carolina and Georgia) and forced to work in the isolation of the islands’ plantations, their cultures mixed to create a creole culture that retained much of their African roots in combination with English and American influence. The dialect they speak is Gullah creole, and the film’s dialogue represents that faithfully. The film, set in 1902, tells the story of the Peazant family and is narrated by Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren), the as-yet unborn child of Eula (Alva Rogers, School Daze) and Eli (Adisa Anderson). As the film unfolds we watch the Peazant family come to grips with the isolation of their home and the possibilities and dangers the move to a more modern world up North might represent.
There is little doubt that systemic racism played a part in Julie Dash’s career. But there’s also little doubt that even the most white of white men could have made Daughters of the Dust an easy sell. It’s an historical drama, which isn’t too bad, but it’s narrated by a character who hasn’t been born yet, but who nevertheless appears in several scenes. It’s set in a place that few people know about – the islands off the coast of George/South Carolina – and is told entirely in the language of that place, the sometimes-difficult to understand Gullah creole. If that weren’t enough, the film doesn’t tell a linear story about a single protagonist. Instead, time weaves in and out of the family, focusing on different members in turn, picking up and dropping their stories in a tapestry.
The genius of Daughters of the Dust is that it turns these apparent weaknesses into strengths. Things start with the amazing cinematography by Arthur Jafa (Dash’s one-time husband). The sun-drenched coasts of St Helen’s are so strikingly beautiful that it makes the film seem like it’s happening on another world, one where the rules of narrative logic don’t really apply. Then the lack of a single narrative starts to make sense, as the stories unfold in a way that feels true to the emotional lives of the women of the island rather than to some idea of plot. The use of the Gullah dialect helps with this, letting us get the emotional tenor of conversations through voice and inflection and body language, but often missing the specifics due to accents and words that aren’t familiar.
All these techniques give the film a poetic, dreamlike aura that’s difficult to describe well. But once the film has you in its grasp, it creates an alternate world that sucks viewers in and offers them sights they’ve never encountered before, even as the truths it reveals about families and hardship and love.
The film has been added to the Library of Congress, and to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, Dash’s alma mater UCLA collaborated with Cohen Media Group to remaster the film. The resulting 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is a thing of beauty. There’s plenty of detail in the frame, including a lovely and organic grain structure. Damage and debris aren’t a significant problem due to clean-up. Colors are beautiful and appropriately saturated, often in lovely golden hues. There are a few nits to pick, like the occasional softness during dissolves, but overall this is a gorgeous transfer that the film deserves. The set’s LPCM 2.0 stereo track does a fine job as well. The dialogue is always clean and clear (though whether you understand it or not is a different matter). The film’s score and soundtrack are well-rendered as well, with plenty of clarity and depth.
This is a two-disc edition of the film. On the first disc we get a commentary with Dash and Michelle Materre, an academic. The pair discuss the film’s origins (as far back as 1975, when it was a conceived as a silent short) to its reception and thematic elements. On the second disc, Dash appears in an interview with academic Stephen Dunn and in a Q&A with Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the Chicago International Film Festival. Dash offers plenty of insights into the film and how it has been received as well as those things which influenced her. Arthur Jafa also appears in an interview describing how he came to cinema in general and Daughters of the Dust in particular. The film’s re-release trailer is also included.
Daughters of the Dust weaves a very particular spell, but some viewers may be immune to its charms. At almost two hours, with no linear narrative to carry viewers forward, some may get lost in the weeds of its beautiful cinematography.
At this late date, it’s rare that an overlooked gem gets released in hi-def, as so many studios are releasing second and third editions of famous films. But Daughters of the Dust is that rare, important film that has been under-released on home video. With this Blu-ray, the film finally gets its due – a solid audiovisual presentation and informative extras. The only thing that could make it better is if this edition sells well enough to convince someone to fund Dash’s sequel.