How does one unpack the poetic beauty of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust? It is a film that promotes the importance of the past, while simultaneously debunking some of the myths that come with viewing things through a nostalgic lens. The film floats on a wave of memories, and at times contradictions, which makes the human experience both captivating and complex. Blending various elements into its historical melting pot, Dash constructs a tale that is dense in themes and loose in structure.
Playing like a lush dream, Daughters of the Dust glides seemingly aimlessly, though every frame serves a distinct purpose, through the lives of the Peazant family. Gullah, descendants of enslaved Africans, and living in Ibo Landing in 1902, the Peazants are on the cusp of great change. After cultivating their own society on the island, one influenced heavily by the customs of the past, many in the family are migrating North in hopes of finding prosperity. As the entire family gathers together for potentially the last time, the seemingly joyous occasion is filled with numerous emotions as the pending unknown evokes feelings of doubt, sadness and pride within the clan.
Daughters of the Dust is one of those films that works best when the audience lets themselves be fully immersed in the poetry of the film. It does not concern itself with offering a straightforward narrative per say, but rather in the feelings and thoughts it stirs up in the viewer. There is an ethereal allure to the world that Dash plays in. The spirits of the past feel present throughout each diverging storyline. As one character suggests at one point, the ghosts of the past are always there to offer strength and guidance, it is just up to the members of the Peazant family to let them in.
While Dash fills the film with several unique characters, it was the matriarch of the clan Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) who is the most fascinating. While those who have returned from the North, to guide the rest to their new homes, are decked out in clothes that suggest the aristocracy of the new land, and preach of new opportunities to reinvent themselves, Nana rejects such notions. Carrying the burden of the generations before her on her shoulders, as well as her own hardships in life, Nana warns that newness does not always guarantee prosperity. In her eyes, the concept of freedom does not merely break the shackles of slavery, but also the family bonds of the past. She is one of the few individuals who understands that there is no future without remembering where one came from.
Her persistence in using herbal remedies passed down through generations, rather than the modern medicine that the younger generation covets, may seem archaic, but Dash shows that there is much value in Nana’s words. The island is a living history that needs to be cherished. Not only does it hold the souls of slaves gone by, but it also holds the rich African culture of their ancestry. The diverse languages and stories, even the mythical ones involving slaves walking on water to escape their captors, are a part of the Peazants identity that threatens to be lost.
It is somewhat disheartening that Julie Dash, judging by IMDB, has only created a handful of works since Daughters of the Dust was released. While not a commercial film made for the masses, its intricate construction clearly show that she is a director with immense talent. Dash eloquently, and successfully, shows that where one comes from is equally as important as where one is going.