1991, Movies

Daughters of the Dust (1991, Julie Dash)

This is a landmark film to my knowledge – the first wide release directed by an African American woman. That in and of itself makes it notable and it is a testament to the nature of the film industry that it both took until 1991 for this to happen and that most of us still don’t know it exists.

The film tells the story of an extended family of Gullah/Geechee moving from Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, to places north, including Nova Scotia, in 1902. It uses the day of departure as a platform to explore the relationships of the main characters (all women – the mother, daughters and granddaughters), the relationship of the Gullah to the mainland, the relationship of freed to slaves, African religion to Christianity and other dichotomies. The film is narrated by a child (presumably the director’s parent) not present at the actual departure, and it jumps between the departure and moments in the past (or, sometimes, dreams). It’s pretty arty so don’t be surprised if you’re not sure what’s happened in the opening minutes. Basically think of it as an arty period chamber drama, only with an all African American cast, and set in an unfamiliar place and steeped in African culture.

The film has dated a little bit in its use of slow-motion – which looks old in a film like this compared to digital slow motion – but especially in terms of its music. Though the film starts out with a soundtrack seemingly inspired by African music, eventually ’80s synthesizers and production creep in, which sounds pretty inappropriate today. (I don’t know why anyone found it appropriate in the 1990s, but then I always feel this way about this type of music.)

But it’s remarkably well paced for a film that takes place over a matter of hours, where nothing really happens – beyond a bit of forced conflict – and it’s such a unique experience and point of view that I was pretty enthralled the whole time. (Aside from during the manufactured conflict.) If you’re interested in something like this, I’d highly recommend watching it as I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it.


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