“Daughters of the Dust” (at the Ken Cinema) is a film with a lot on its mind, but one that wears its agendas with lyrical lightness. A poetic attempt to re-create a bygone culture as not only a role model for the present but also a positive mythology for the future, the movie’s strong visual qualities and epic emotions make it a bracing remedy to swallow.
Set in the distinctive Gullah culture of the rural Sea Islands off the South Carolina-Georgia coast (the same locale that hosted the Jon Voight-starring “Conrack”), “Daughters” became something of a phenomenon during its New York premiere, selling out show after show. At a time when black filmmakers despair of getting anything but gang-related stories on screen, this textured portrait of a unique society that is thoroughly African-American has been treated as a revelation by audiences.
Because of their isolated location, the Sea Islands developed a characteristic ethos that kept alive much more of African mores and folkways for longer than anyplace else in the American South. On the islands, descendants of slaves evolved not only a unique patois but also Africa-derived myths, burial customs, even games all their own. By 1902, however, this close-knit society, represented in the film by matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) and her clan, was showing signs of breaking up.
The reasons are symbolized by the simultaneous return from the outer world of two family members. Viola Peazant (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is a passionate Baptist who has come back to lead a clan migration across the water to what she considers the Promised Land of economic opportunity. Her opposite number is Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), whose time on the mainland has been marked not by opportunity but by subjugation and prostitution. If this sounds like a setup for a battle for the soul of the Peazants, that is only partially the case. The migration to the mainland is never in doubt, and writer-director-co-producer Julie Dash is not very much interested in the conventional mechanics of plot anyhow. What she wants to do, and what she does best, is recapture a time, a place, and a sensibility, providing a respectful picture of the proud Gullah culture and the vibrant, passionate women who are its guiding lights.
As a result, this languid, unhurried film (Times-rated family) concentrates on exploring sensations in an almost ritualistic way. Beautifully photographed by Arthur Jafa, whose work won the best cinematography award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, “Daughters” of the Dust” focuses extensively on the visual.
Much attention is paid to the old-style Africanized beliefs and customs of the Peazant clan, even to the point of using a mystical character called “the unborn child” to act as both a plot catalyst and a voice-over narrator. Dash, who has Gullah heritage on her father’s side, has also been insistent on telling the Peazants’ story not as a conventional straightforward narrative but in the manner of an African storyteller.
Although no one would want to turn “Daughters of the Dust” into an episode of “Knots Landing,” that roundabout narrative method has its drawbacks, making some of the film’s plot points less clear than Dash thinks they are. Also, the Gullah patois, although essential to Dash’s objectives, is occasionally too dense for total comprehension, despite the help the occasional use of subtitles provides.
To those who are understandably taken with the strength and power of these very diverse women, these problems will matter very little. For, as a celebration of a now-forgotten culture that believed itself stronger than death, “Daughters of the Dust” very much has a power all its own.