"Daughters of the Dust," Julie Dash's magical 1991 debut feature, captures a sad, thrilling moment of transformation for a community of Gullahs, who are the descendants of African slaves who lived on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. On an August day in 1902, several generations of the Peazant family are preparing to move to the U.S. mainland, bidding farewell to their island home and the vibrant, uniquely African-influenced culture they've succeeded in keeping alive.
All good period pieces achieve and sustain a sense of immersion in a different time and place. "Daughters of the Dust," which Dash spent many years researching, producing, writing and directing, goes further than most. Its examination of a bygone way of life is so patient and evocative, so beholden to its own storytelling conventions and rhythms, that watching it is a bit like submitting to a form of time travel. You emerge from the experience feeling slightly dazed and disoriented, but also deeply and thoroughly ravished.
This is partly due to the hypnotic pull of Arthur Jafa's cinematography (which won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival) and the atmospheric drumbeats of John Barnes' score, which conspire to establish an enveloping, dreamlike mood at the outset. But it is also because of the strong, vividly detailed personalities of the women at the film's center, each one representing a different voice in a timeless tug of war between tradition and modernity, assimilation and isolation.
There is the family's octogenarian matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), who is determined to remain on the island with her rituals and herbal potions to the chagrin of her embittered granddaughter-in-law, Haagar (Kaycee Moore), who looks forward to the prosperity that she hopes awaits them on the mainland.
Two other women have returned for the Peazants' final island gathering after leaving home years ago, though their experiences could scarcely have been more different. Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has become an outspokenly devout Baptist while Yellow Mary (Barbara O.), who returns with her girlfriend (Trula Hoosier) in tow, is ostracized by her family members for being a prostitute.
One of the few who openly embraces Yellow Mary is the spirited Eula (Alva Rogers), who was raped by a white man on the mainland and may be carrying his child, to the horror of her husband, Eli (Adisa Anderson). It is Eula who becomes the film's wrenching voice of conscience and sanity when she cries, "Let's live our lives without living in the fold of old wounds!" — a plea that, even for ears unaccustomed to the thick, West African-inflected creole of the region, cuts to the bone.
Viola has brought a photographer (Tommy Redmond Hicks) to the island to document the occasion. He's something of a stand-in for Dash, whose father was a Gullah, and whose film becomes its own striking act of witness. The manner of that witness — including the use of voice-over narration from the perspective of Eula's unborn child — shows a remarkable integrity.
Rather than telling her story via clean, linear strokes and manufactured crises, Dash lingers on the sights and sounds of Sea Island life, from the unforgettable images of women on the beach in floor-length white dresses to the close-ups of fresh-cooked prawns, hard-boiled eggs and other dishes served at the Peazants' feast. These moments are not incidental to the narrative; they are essential to it, as Dash seeks to convey the very look, feel and texture of something that is about to be lost forever.
When "Daughters of the Dust" premiered in the dramatic competition at Sundance in 1991, the field included two other major indie breakthroughs: Todd Haynes' "Poison" (which won the grand jury prize) and Richard Linklater's "Slacker." That their directors have gone on to become prominent auteurs on the independent scene is an undeniable testament to their genius.
But it also speaks to the cultural and gender-based norms that kept a singular talent like Dash from the filmmaking career she deserved — in part because "Daughters of the Dust," one of the most striking American independent movies ever made, didn't conform to any studio executive's ideal of what a "black" movie should look and sound like. (The year 1991 saw a mini-renaissance for African American commercial cinema, including "Boyz n the Hood," "New Jack City," "Jungle Fever" and "A Rage in Harlem.")
Even still, "Daughters of the Dust" hasn't exactly languished in obscurity. Although it struggled to find a distributor post-Sundance, it did become the first film directed by an African American woman to receive a wide theatrical release (courtesy of Kino International). Its reemergence in theaters is timely for any number of reasons, a widely spotted shout-out in Beyoncé's "Lemonade" not least among them.
The present-day resonance of a movie about an immigrant community caught between a traumatic past and an uncertain future can largely speak for itself. But it's especially meaningful in a year marked by a remarkable range of serious new works from black filmmakers, from Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" and Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" to Denzel Washington's forthcoming "Fences" — each one offering a different vision of African American families trying to rise above a deeply entrenched legacy of oppression.
As an example of how to realize that vision without compromise, "Daughters of the Dust" remains a pioneering work of art — a vibrant dispatch from our historical and cinematic past that continues to look ahead to a more hopeful future.
'Daughters of the Dust'
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills