I'd heard the title Daughters of the Dust crop up a couple of times not long before the BFI announced its re-release on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK. Everybody's favourite source of film lists, Taste of Cinema, included it on their '10 Totally Awesome 1990s Movies You May Have Missed' lineup in May, which caught my attention. Plus I'd heard mention of it when Beyonce's acclaimed Lemonade film/album came out last year. So, although descriptions of the film didn't make it sound like my typical cup-of-tea, I was eager to give the film a look and what better way than in a shiny new Blu-Ray edition, spruced up by the BFI.
There's not much of a story to describe as I typically like to do in my second paragraph. Some opening text explains how in South Carolina’s Sea Islands, certain communities of former west-African slaves lived alone, away from the rest of American society and adopted many of their ancestors’ Yoruba traditions. The film is set in 1902 and sees members of the Gullah community on the islands struggle to maintain their cultural heritage and folklore while preparing for a migration to the mainland, even further from their roots.
This struggle takes place with little on screen incidence. A couple of tragedies and scandals have struck the community, but these have happened in the past and are referred to, but never shown. We do however see mystical visions of the future as a child possibly born from her mother's rape narrates and fleetingly visits the film's scenes. A couple of former islanders and their friend who come to visit from the mainland also offer some unrest to proceedings and remind the community and the audience how the two worlds differ.
So instead of a plot-driven drama, the film plays out as a poetic rumination on identity, heritage and tradition. For the most part, characters lounge around in the sun and debate the pros and cons of their dying traditions and what it might mean to leave everything behind (including some members of the community). So, I must say, its form doesn't make for an easy watch. I struggled to get into the film to begin with, even though I kind of knew what to expect from the descriptions I'd read of it. However, I found that it gradually crept under my skin.
The most attention-grabbing aspect of the film is its cinematography by Arthur Jafa. Shot on location on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, the film is sumptuously bathed in golden sunlight. With the characters dressed largely in smart white period costume, yet living in simple shacks on the beach, it all has a beautiful other-worldly quality to its look too.
The film's unusual poetic style helps create a truly unique look at race issues in America. Whereas most films about life as an African-America tend to be tough and gritty, largely set on the mean streets of a big city, this is a peaceful, quietly thoughtful meditation on what it really means to be an African-American. As quiet as it is, writer/director Julie Dash's passion is still clearly evident too, but in giving her thoughts and feelings room to breathe she provokes intelligent debate rather than deliver didactic, black and white messages.
Saying that, there are several impassioned monologues in the film. It's not all that quiet as such. These scenes offered up a slight problem I had with the film though. I found some of the performances to be a little hammy and these grand speeches tended to be when this was evident. This might be partly down to these scenes feeling more theatrical than the rest of the film, but nonetheless, I found myself cringing a little here and there.
It's an incredibly admirable work overall though. I found it difficult to warm to at first due to its meandering nature and lack of narrative, but the passion and elegant beauty of the film shone through after a while. It helps that it's a veritable feast for the eyes, but I could also appreciate how brave and forward thinking Dash was being in making such a unique and intelligent study of cultural identity.
Daughters of the Dust is out on 26th June on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds great.
The film has a substantial collection of special features. Here's the list:
- Audio commentary with Julie Dash and Michelle Materre
- An Interview with Julie Dash (2017, 72 mins): The director in conversation with Dr Stephane Dunn
- Q&A with director Julie Dash and actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce (2017, 25 mins): From the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, moderated by actress Regina Taylor
- An Interview with Arthur Jafa (2017, TBC mins): The cinematographer interviewed by Karen Alexander
- 2016 theatrical trailer
- Illustrated booklet with full film credits and essays by Jennifer DeClue and Gaylene Gould
It's an extensive collection of material which helps appreciate such an unusual film. I haven't had time to look through it all yet, but I plan to and will report back once I have.