Film Focus: Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Each month, we will be sharing a trailer on the site as a part of our recently launched project, SMALLSCREEN. SMALLSCREEN’s Film Focus series will share films that are related to the rural — through setting, subject, or filmmaker.

Raised in Harlem, filmmaker Julie Dash began her career at UCL.A in the 1970’s among a group of student filmmakers whose work would become known as the L.A. Rebellion.

By Jessie Sims

Daughters of the Dust is a migration story centered on three generations of Gullah women, members of the Peazant family. Set in 1902, it follows the family on a single, fateful day — the eve of their journey North. The filmmaker, Julie Dash, was inspired by a moment in her own family history, when her ancestors left islands in the lowcountry South to begin a new life in the industrialized North.

Dash spent years researching to write the film, but she prioritizes aesthetic and emotional power over historical detail. Daughters isn’t an ethnographic documentary. It’s a poetic, mythic tale. And every aspect of it, including the narrative structure and the filmic style, is used to express a Gullah-rooted sensibility. We see that a crucial influence on this sensibility is the setting — isolated barrier islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. On these islands, African traditions and rituals were carried on post-slavery. A unique culture and lifestyle formed.

The bulk of the film occurs on a Sunday, a day of no work. The Peazant women prepare a farewell meal of gumbo, okra, corn, and fresh-caught crab. The children play and dance on the beach, one last time. Under a canopy of Spanish moss, Nana Peazant, who will not leave the island, visits her husband’s grave. And two family members return from the mainland to be a part of the others’ decisive journey. These two women rediscover the place of their childhood. They struggle with what it means to them today.

In a conversation with Dash, the writer bell hooks said she believes “a lot of people were deeply moved by Daughters precisely because it addressed the agrarian experience of black folk.”* And it’s true that the award-winning cinematography, shot on seven of the Sea Islands, doesn’t just stun you but it also takes you to an America you’ve seldom seen on screen. In 2004, the Library of Congress added Daughters of the Dust to the National Film Registry, formally recognizing its contribution to the nation’s cultural history.

For more information on the film, visit the distributor’s page:

*The full ‘Dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks’ is printed in Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. (The New Press: New York City, 1992).

The FilmFocus trailer series is part of AoTR’s cinema project, SMALLSCREEN.

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