blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Daughters of the Dust (1991, Julie Dash)

Daughters of the Dust is an epical story told lyrically. Set in 1902, the film tells the story about the time a specific Gullah family headed to the mainland and north into the twentieth century. It opens with Cheryl Lynn Bruce returning home to make the crossing, bringing along photographer Tommy Redmond Hicks to document the occasion. Bruce had left home, got some education, and became a Christian.

She’s very surprised to find her sister, played by Barbarao, also returning home. Bruce is the good sister who went off and assimilated into the popular culture. Barbarao is the scandalous sister, though it turns out she’s not the one who ought to feel scandalized. Barbarao’s bringing along female friend Trula Hoosier.

Despite the awkward situation (with the audience not having details, just the awkwardness), Bruce tries to make conversation. She remembers childhood details, which leads to Hicks mansplaining about the slave trade. The Gullah are descendants of African captives enslaved by plantation owners on the lower Atlantic. In 1902, it’s living memory, something Hicks doesn’t understand (yet). Barbarao and Hoosier laugh at Hicks’s naivete, and the rest of the water taxi ride is presumably much more quiet.

We don’t know because the action moves to the family’s day on Ibo Landing, named after the Ibo people, who figure into local mythology. Except, again, it turns out it’s living memory, which adds some devastating context to why people living in a tropical paradise (albeit with bad soil) would want to get the heck out. It also will lead to character development for Hicks and male “lead” Adisa Anderson. Quotations because, although Anderson gets quite a bit in the first act, he’s only the male lead because he’s the only male with a character arc.

The family—the Peazant family—is de facto matriarchal, led by Cora Lee Day, though granddaughter-in-law Kaycee Moore is making a power grab with the move north. Day’s not going, something none of her family seems to have really internally acknowledged. The film takes place over two days, with occasional flashbacks and a future-tense narration from Anderson’s (as yet) unborn daughter (Kai-Lynn Warren). Day also narrates a bit, starting before Warren, which provides some framework for how the narration will work in slipping through time.

Eventually, Warren will appear visually, the hope of the family—the first child to be born off the island—but also the child living inside this story she’s learned. It’s beautifully done. There’s nothing writer and director Dash attempts she doesn’t accomplish. The bigger the swing, the better the hit.

The film’s got several subplots, most supporting the main plot—the family leaving—through character development. Anderson’s miserable because someone raped his wife, Alva Rogers, and he’s worried she’s pregnant with another man’s child. It’s made him remote, angry, and violent, especially when Rogers won’t tell him who did it. Anderson goes to great-grandmother Day for advice but doesn’t listen when she gives it.

Rogers spends much of the film bonding with Barbarao and Hoosier, who are able to sympathize with her situation–finding just how much and why fuels Rogers’s character development arc, which becomes one of the film’s most consequential. But they’re all exceptional.

The best performance is Day. Despite being one of the two narrators (and the only one active onscreen)—and being very open in her narration—Daughters reveals more and more about Day as it progresses. Everyone orbits her, and Dash explores their different and similar trajectories. But Day has layered the performance so well, each new detail just informs a previous choice and sets up subsequent ones. It’s a singular performance, though the same can be said of a few more.

Barbarao, Moore, and Rogers are the other singular performances. Rogers is the last to go from simmer to boil, and when she does, it’s phenomenal and something it turns out the film’s been working towards the whole time.

Technically, the film’s sublime. Dash’s direction is deliberate and concise, honed both with the performances and composition. Color is crucial in Daughters, whether the blue ribbon on future child Warren or the indigo stains on the palms of the formerly enslaved family members, providing a visual reminder of generational differences and experiences.

Arthur Jafa’s succulent photography, toggling between tropical forests and white sand beaches, is simultaneously extraordinary and mundane. Similarly, John Barnes’s score inhabits the scenes, modern for the audience’s ears, while providing an emotional gateway into the characters’ lives, even as Dash waits to reveal various details.

Then there’s Joseph Burton and Amy Carey’s editing. Their cutting makes it all happen. Dash and her editors use slow motion to great effect, focusing and guiding the audience’s attention.

Great production and costume design—Kerry Marshall and Arline Burks Gant, respectively.

Daughters of the Dust is a marvel. Dash, her cast, her crew all do superlative work.

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