Transience in Blackness, Beyonce’s Lemonade, and the Black woman filmmaker Hollywood shunned
I grew a resistance in my belly to writing about this movie, an ever-present wooshing in my abdomen as I reminded myself on the metro, in a meeting, on quiet walks through the city to put something on paper once I found the time. I am nervous to shed light on this film, having written, re-written, and deleted strings of thought before looking at my keyboard in despair, as if it could give me something to work with. (I decided to ease the pressure by providing a “Part II” of this review in later time.)
How can I name the seismic force behind director Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust?– the weight on your chest to this new and familiar cinematic world. Those who have set eyes on this film with a thoughtful intimacy of the Black woman’s body and the conversation it has with the world, and of her knowing, understand. Those who have sought a learning of Blackness that is lost or becoming lost, through the heart rather than around it, understand.
Dash’s storytelling is critically layered, taking one of the most opportune features of film– its dimensionality– and filling the space with a visually excellent, nonlinear, African-rooted cinematic rhetoric on the hearts of Black folks who take on trauma like rolling waves and must wade through to understand themselves.
I urge you, if you have ever sat with these thoughts, to watch this film.
. . .
Drums beat at the base of a melody carried by the sound of a whispering flute, and the movie takes our hand into this world.
“At the turn of the century, Sea Island Gullahs, descendants of African Captives, remained isolated from the mainland of South Carolina and Georgia. /As a result of their isolation, the Gullah created and maintained a distinct imaginative and original African American culture.”
“Gullah communities recalled, remembered, and recollected much of what their ancestors brought with them from Africa...”
This explanation feels easy, literal. Here she sets the film’s physical realm.
The next two shots ground this world beyond the literal and into the supernatural, appearing like a mirage mired in soft golds and violets. Dust falls in jittery fashion from coated palms; the silhouette of an older woman washes itself, fully clothed, light shimmering off of the water. A woman speaks:
I am the first and the last
I am the honored one and the scorned one
I am the whore and the holy one
I am the wife and the virgin
I am the barren one
And many are my daughters.
I am the silence that you cannot understand
I am the utterance of my name.
A lady adorned in lacey white stands at the center of a boat as men carry her across the shot. The narrator’s voice trails off and a medium close-up of the woman’s chest shows her hand wrapped in lace, clutching the necklace wrapped around her neck. She is returning to somewhere precious.
. . . .
The woman in white goes by Yellow Mary for her light complexion– she is a woman from the island who left her community years ago and returns for mysterious reasons. She arrives with another fair-skinned Black woman whose presence offers no discernible purpose. Mary’s return is full of mysteries.
Yellow Mary is greeted on the island by Ayola, a woman in pressed, conservative clothing and a chin raised high, a body stiff with piety and intention. Sitting beside Ayola is a photographer by the name of Mr. Snead.
The community is preparing to leave the island for good– with the exception of elder Nana Peazant’s resistance. Migrating North marks triumph for a zealously Christian Ayola and she wishes to document the moment. Finally, they are lifted from their island existence and into the throes of modernity; material opportunity; whiteness.
The rest of the film follows Yellow Mary’s return and the islanders’ begrudging acceptance of it. “Heffa” one woman snides; “shameless hussie” states the other. She left, tasted the world, and licked her lips in satisfaction, returning out-of-the-blue with her all-white and pressed hair and wordless explanation.
Her silence appears as condescending as it does full of something, perhaps something unspeakable.
There is also Eli and Eula. Both are wed to one another. We soon learn that Eula’s body faced a great trauma, and Eli is convinced that the only way to escape his wife’s pain is for them to leave the island. Nana Peazant urges Eli to stay– “You ain’t goin’ to no land of milk & honey”. Later in the film Yellow Mary, her companion, and Eula play in the trees. Pieces of the secrets behind Yellow Mary’s silent anguish emerge, as does Eula’s. Trauma begins to see light.
Much of the film is of playing in the trees, children on the beach learning their ancestral language, reverence of Nana Peazant’s word, while trauma continues coming to light. This is the image of Black life in 1902 that Julie Dash has decided to sell us.
In 1991, Daughters of the Dust became the first widely released film by a Black female filmmaker. The politics surrounding the film enlighten as much as the film itself.
Dash spent greater than a decade developing the story behind Daughters of the Dust. She worked with talent like Arthur Jafa, whose wrenching video essay of African-American life Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death recently played in art museums nationwide (making me cry in a dark Hirschhorn room surrounded by a curious white audience), and spiritually-minded composer John Barnes to mold a visual story that expanded both meaning and artistic quality in every direction imaginable.
As mentioned recently by various film contributors, Daughters of the Dust took to a grander stage after Beyonce’s highly referential nod to the film in Lemonade, its restoration and acquisition by the Cohen Media Group’s Cohen Film Collection, and now its release on Netflix.
Prior to this series of events and even to the making of this film, Hollywood refused to fund her project. (Dash has since argued that her identity was that which was rejected.) The Black woman filmmaker, who drew much inspiration from Third World Cinema as a film student, struggled to finance her film until PBS agreed to fund her project. Despite positive reception upon release and Arthur Jafa’s prize at Sundance for his cinematographic work in the film, critics decided to sweep Daughters of the Dust under the carpet of mainstream film canon. With the power vested in these men, they did so successfully– and Daughters of the Dust spent 25 years in relative quiet.
I plan on reading Julie Dash’s book contextualizing the project, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film, in order to continue fleshing out this reflection. Daughters of the Dust simply requires more of an excavation than I accounted for in these blog posts. It deserves more than I could ever put words to.