16 Jan 2018

52 films by women #14: Daughters of the Dust

From Widescreen, 3:44 pm on 16 January 2018

Daughters of the Dust was the first film by an African-American woman to get a US theatrical release and then it disappeared. Luckily for us, says Dan Slevin, Netflix is now streaming it for everyone.

The flowing dresses and outdoor locations of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust were an inspiration for Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

The flowing dresses and outdoor locations of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust were an inspiration for Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Photo: Netflix

It’s January which, for film fans the world over, means Sundance – that snowy gathering of movie executives and media that determines so much of what we watch over the following 12 months. Last year’s big successes include The Big Sick, Call Me By Your Name, A Ghost Story and the dark horse for Oscar attention next month, Get Out.

But not every Sundance success goes on to acclaim, awards, big box office and stellar careers for their creators. Some Sundance successes are Daughters of the Dust.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust premiered at Sundance in 1991 to a positive response from audiences and critics as well as the prize for cinematography (for Arthur Jafa). A year later, the film was released to North American cinemas – the first time a feature film by an African-American woman had been given a theatrical release. Shortly afterwards, Daughters of the Dust disappeared from cinemas and, for a long time, from the discourse entirely.

Cora Lee Day is matriarch Nana Peazant in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

Cora Lee Day is matriarch Nana Peazant in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. Photo: Cohen Media Group

It played in the New Zealand International Film Festival in 1992 but didn’t make it on to the arthouse circuit here. Imported DVDs have been available at boutique video stores but with only a modest reputation to precede it, it was hardly jumping off the shelves.

Then, in 2016, for the 25th anniversary of the film Cohen Media Group in the US restored the film for the Toronto Film Festival. Soon after, the great Beyoncé featured an homage to Dash’s film in her “visual album” Lemonade and by then Daughters of the Dust was finally getting the attention from cinema-lovers that it deserved. Now, this immaculate restoration is available around the world on Netflix and we can get a sense of ‘what might have been’.

Set around the turn of the 20th Century, Dash’s film is set on an island off the coast of South Carolina where freed slaves – known as Gullahs – had been able to settle and maintain something of their former culture (including a creole language that almost all the characters speak). The world is changing, however, and some of the younger members of the community are intent on trying their luck on the mainland – not realising that the life for a young black woman in the American South was likely to be even harder than the subsistence farming on the island.

Dash presents the community as diverse yet unified; sheltering a deep spirituality but different faiths; the slave ships still a living (but dimming) memory. The film offers little to viewers who want to have a narrative delivered to them on a plate but a great deal to those who have the patience to trust in this writer-director’s unique vision.

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Photo: Kobal Collection

There are no subtitles for the dialogue – you have to pick it up over time and you can. The narrative is non-linear and the voice-over narration is by a character not yet born. None of the actors are familiar and, to most of us, neither is the world that their characters are living in. But it is beautiful, moving, haunting, striking and unique.

Watching the film at home, I wondered whether the commercial failure of Daughters of the Dust had also suppressed a kind of uniquely African-American female storytelling style. How influential might the film have been if it had been more widely seen? Would we now be able to talk about African-American cinema in more terms than just Spike Lee, Blaxploitation or Black Panther? In the same way, for example, we can say that Russian cinema is distinctive, or Japanese cinema. Was there a fresh vernacular that never got to develop?

I’ve been critical in the past on RNZ of the lack of respect offered by Netflix for older films but I have to say that rescuing Daughters of the Dust from worldwide obscurity is marvellous. My only complaint is that I still haven’t worked out how to make Netflix films and shows play all the way through to the end of the credits without interruption by a noisy trailer for something entirely inappropriate. It’s not the first time – it also happened with Mudbound – that I’ve screamed in frustration at the TV as Netflix basically screams back at me to watch some dreadful superhero TV series I’ve never heard of.                                                       

Daughters of the Dust is available to stream on Netflix now. #52filmsbywomen is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women.

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