The first theatrically-released feature film ever directed by an African-American woman has been quietly added to Netflix streaming, and we all have Beyoncé to thank for it. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash in 1991, served as an influence on Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade. Before that time, Dash and her film had been more or less forgotten by Hollywood. But now we all have a chance to watch this visually-stunning and historically important film whenever we want.
Julie Dash was raised in the Queensbridge Housing Project in Queens by her father, who was of West African and Creole heritage. Dash earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Film Production at City College New York, then went on to become an American Film Institute Fellow and then attended UCLA’s film school. It was during her time at UCLA that she and her classmates sparked a revolution in filmmaking. The “L.A. Rebellion” was comprised of a new generation of mainly African and African-American filmmakers who helped create a new Black Cinema, which served as an alternative to Hollywood fare. Dash, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Larry Clark were all changing filmmaking rules and rejecting expectations of mainstream narratives.
In her early career, Dash directed mainly documentaries, including the stellar “Diary of an African Nun” released in 1977. But eventually Dash was inspired by black women authors and started directing fictional shorts, such as her 1982 release “Illusions,” which won the 1985 Black American Cinema Society Award, and was named the Best Film of the Decade by the Black Filmmakers’ Foundation.
What really intrigued Dash was the idea of exploring the lives of black women living at the turn of the century, and finding a way to inject her own family heritage into the story. This was the impetus for Daughters of the Dust. Dash knew a bit about the Gullah traditions, as passed down by her father and her childhood Nanny, who was a Gullah woman. The Gullah people lived on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The Sea Islands are considered sacred ground by many whose ancestors were brought into the country in chains and sold as slaves. Daughters of the Dust imagines what life was like for those early Gullah people who lived on the islands after the abolishment of slavery.
Daughters of the Dust was also an attempt by Dash to reframe the Antebellum South, after decades of what Dash would describe as inaccurate and narrow depictions of slavery. Dash’s film can best be described as a form of visual poetry. The story is told in a non-linear and inventive way, with an unborn child serving as the narrator of the film. The film connects oral traditions of the past with music videos of modern times. Dash’s husband Arthur Jafa shot the film beautifully. His cinematography helped the film garner attention at the Sundance film festival in 1991. It was eventually distributed and released theatrically in 1992.
It’s a film that might be hard for some to follow, due to its less traditional style of storytelling. But the film revolves around the Peazant family, who live on the Sea Islands. Two women who left the family to move to the urbanized north return to the island to organize a migration North. The film explores the generational differences between family members, examining the tensions that are exposed when change and “progress” clash with traditions handed down from generations of ancestors. The entire film revolves around the strong, matriarchal structure within the island community. And looks at the importance of family, culture and heritage in a changing world.
Daughters of the Dust is a complicated film and it moves rather slowly, but its incredible visuals will leave you breathless. The acting is solid from this cast of mainly unknowns, and the emotions of the characters are palpable throughout the movie. Cora Lee Day is a stand out in her role as family matriarch Nana Peazant, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce is pitch-perfect as Viola Peazant.
Audiences are generally split on their views of the film. Some find Daughters of the Dust to be innovative and completely mesmerizing, while others find it meandering and confusing. While the film may challenge your expectations, its historic nature makes it a must see for any film buff.
Daughters of the Dust is currently streaming on Netflix.