At the turn of the 20th century, a Gullah community is about to lose several of its inhabitants to mainland living.
Directed by Julie Dash
Starring Cora Lee Day, Adisa Anderson, and Alva Rogers
Review by Jon Kissel
Daughters of the Dust is set just after the turn of the 20th century, and the inhabitants of this particular island are about to welcome the new era by leaving their old ways behind. The Peazants of Ibo Landing are losing a good chunk of their clan, to the optimism of some and the consternation of others. Village matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day) isn’t going anywhere, still connected to the religious and familial customs of West Africa and sure that the mainland has nothing of value to teach her. Her grandson Eli (Adisa Anderson) is ready to go, though any hope for the trip is undermined by his pregnant wife Eula (Alva Rogers) and her recent trauma. Eula was raped by a white man at around the time she first got pregnant, and both are wracked with doubt over who the baby’s biological father is. Accompanying the Peazants are two granddaughters who’ve already made homes for themselves on the mainland and are visiting for the farewell party. The aggressively Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) brings a photographer with her to document the festivities, and Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) brings her girlfriend Trula (Trula Hoosier). Yellow Mary is named as such because of her mixed-race parentage, and her ostracism from the rest of the village provides more stress for Eli and Eula if Eula’s baby does indeed turn out to have a white father. All this is narrated by Eula’s unborn child (Kay-Lynn Warren), who exists outside of time and pontificates on the continued existence of Ibo Landing and her place within it.
The plot of Daughters of the Dust is far less important than the tone and the feeling of watching it. Dash must convey what a valuable thing this community is, rare as it is in an America that did all it could to ensure that it wouldn’t. Places like Ibo Landing are steeped in romanticism because they connect Black Americans to their cultural history, a link purposefully severed. Tapping into that romanticism and pride is the minimum a director would have to do, and Dash does even better by making it look attractive and beautiful. Some of the film’s best scenes are disconnected from the plot, like the old woman sticking halved okra pods onto children’s heads like they’re horns. This is rustic living that nevertheless has meaning in everyday life, especially when the oldest villagers were enslaved themselves decades earlier. The indigo permanently stained into their hands is the 19th century equivalent of an Auschwitz tattoo, and every action taken in free will is a blue finger in the eye of their enslavers.
Even with all the value found in Ibo Landing, it is inhabited by people and people get bored. Yellow Mary and Thula call it the most desolate place on earth, despite sitting in the branches of a picaresque willow. They hate the gnats, but they do miss good gumbo. The bittersweet pull of home is all over both of them, including the ignored and belittled Yellow Mary. Her reception in town keeps the film from idealizing these people. Dash shows that they can be exactly as cruel and ignorant as anyone anywhere else, a choice that improves her movie and humanizes her characters. Dash also refuses to judge the characters, whether they’re staying or leaving. Nana is an insular person who only knows of this one tiny community, while someone like Viola has been made to condescend to her relatives thanks to her fervent Christianity. Both are given considerable moments of humility over their choices, and the ability to prostrate themselves indicates doubt and the capability to imagine what their lives would be like if they’d chosen differently.
Daughters of the Dust is a beautiful film about something I didn’t know I wanted. It had never occurred to me that I had never seen a Black immigrant story, nor that I needed one. Dash provides a great one that satisfies all the comforting and conflicting ideas that make these kinds of stories so attractive in the first place. Viola’s embrace of Christianity is revealed to be partly about her desire to live with her relatives in eternity. With one immaculate panning shot after another, Dash demonstrates why a person would want that. A-