Sunday, November 19, 2006

Film Review #64: Daughters of the Dust
1992 *** Director: Julie Dash *** “We all have our Julie Dash moments,” says filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, adding, “I worked mine into a film about living on Taiwan.” *** Welbon was in upstate New York last month for a screening of her own 2003 documentary about African American women filmmakers, Sisters in Cinema, at the Community Folk Art Center’s three-day film festival in Syracuse. It’s impossible, she said, to over-estimate the importance to other black women filmmakers of Dash’s tale of the Gullah, Daughters of the Dust. Its lavish visual feast, its climbing tendrils of narrative, and its attention to place that’s at once swooning and meticulous, marked a paradigm leap. *** Daughters of the Dust opened in January 1992 with no marketing to speak of and only a few mainstream reviews, but word of mouth kept it in theaters for six months. You would think this would lead to more movies, right? Dash herself appears in Sisters in Cinema, at one point describing her quest to get backing for new film projects in the 90’s. Remember this was the era when indie filmmaking opportunities for men – black and white alike – cracked wide open. “They’ll take you to lunch,” Dash says, “but they don’t follow through.” *** “Our Ellis Island” is what Dash has called the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Initial landing points for the slave trade, they were also places of protective isolation for Africans who remained there, called Gullah. Besides working the rice and indigo plantations, the Gullah preserved West African cuisine, their unique Geechee tongue and a blend of Islam alongside African deities. The legend of Ibo Landing, in which one shipment of new slaves sized up the beach, turned around and in their chains walked en masse back into the Atlantic, is central to Daughters in the Dust, where it’s told twice. Dash’s film puts Ibo Landing on St. Helena. Even today, numerous Gullah communities in the islands claim to be the “real” site of Ibo Landing. Its legend resonates in every journey by boat this movie’s characters undertake. *** Daughters of the Dust unwraps the Peazant family history through the eyes, memories and visions of its women over two days in August 1902. The family gathers once more before most will migrate north via the mainland. This is another epochal crossing of the water, so a “modern” photographer, Mr. Sneed from Philadelphia, is there to record their last sea-side feast and matriarch Nana’s blessing. Nana and her unborn great-great-granddaughter recall this final reunion in voice-overs that also fill in past events and future developments in wry asides. Family members squabble over loyalties, secrets, prosperity’s lure in a new century, whether old ways are a “hoodoo mess,” and Yellow Mary, who’s come home with her pretty lover Trula. *** Dash used these squabbles and Mr. Sneed’s group poses in the dunes by the ocean as devices to sum up entire debates and anguished contradictions about what that migrating generation faced. We first see Yellow Mary arriving by water, languidly resting like some Cleopatra on her barge, but her own progress in the wider world has been deeply ambivalent, with a heavy price for her restless freedom. *** “All that yellow wasted,” spits one Baptist cousin, seeing no chances of light-skinned children from wayward Yellow Mary. It is hard to discern whether this contingent of cousins disapproves most of Yellow Mary’s own departure from the island years before, or her career as a high-end prostitute, or her girl friend. Only an outburst from the young pregnant wife Eula, who defends Yellow Mary as “one of us,” forces some reconciliation. And Eula’s Unborn Child, whom Nana calls into being to save the family, materializes as a ten-year-old with an indigo hair ribbon pouring through a fancy mail-order catalog. She observes wryly, “I was on a spiritual mission but I got distracted.” *** More than likely, you’ve seen Dash’s work since – on MTV, Encore and HBO. She works steadily, making about a film a year for hire on the small screen. But she’s never made another full-length feature of her own for theatrical release. Dash, whose father was Gullah, first conceived of Daughters of the Dust about 1975. In 1988 she got enough funding for a 28-day location shoot. Then lack of money delayed post-production another couple years. Daughters of the Dust was the first full-length indie feature by a black woman in wide release in the US. There wasn’t a DVD of Daughters of the Dust until Kino’s 2000 issue, which has excellent extras but disappointing sound quality. And Netflicks has only added this title to their inventory in the past year. *** But Dash’s persistence has continued to feed others. Yvonne Welbon is making a new feature film. Kasie Lemmons – who made Eve’s Bayou and Caveman’s Valentine – is shooting a new film in Toronto. And Nigerian-British filmmaker Ngozi Onwaruh, who gave us her own take on Ibo Landing’s legend in Welcome II The Terrordome, she’s making another movie too. ***** This review was written for broadcast on Women's Voices Radio on Thankgiving, 11/23/06. An abbreviated form appears in's staff feature, Out of Sight II: Twenty Films You Haven't Seen But Should on 11/20/06.