Review/Film; ‘Daughters Of the Dust’: The Demise Of a Tradition
Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” is a film of spellbinding visual beauty about the Gullah people living on the Sea Islands off the South Carolina-Georgia coast at the turn of the century. More than any other group of Americans descended from West Africans, the Gullahs, through their isolation, were able to maintain African customs and rituals. Cut off from the mainland, except by boat, they had their own patois: predominantly English but with a strong West African intonation. Most of the film’s dialogue is spoken in that dialect, called Geechee, with occasional subtitles in English.
“Daughters of the Dust,” which opened yesterday at Film Forum 1, focuses on the psychic and spiritual conflicts among the women of the Peazant family, a Gullah clan that makes the painful decision to migrate to the American mainland. Set on a summer day in 1902, on the eve of their departure, the film depicts an extended family picnic that is also a ritual farewell celebration attended by a photographer.
Each of the principal characters represents a different view of a family heritage that, once the Peazants have dispersed throughout the North, may not survive. Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), the group’s 88-year-old great-grandmother and the clan’s closest link to its Yoruba roots, still practices ritual magic and grieves over the demise of that tradition. Viola Peazant (Cherly Lynn Bruce) is a devout Baptist who has rejected Nana’s spiritualism but who brings to her Christianity a similar fervency. Haagar (Kaycee Moore), who married into the family, disparages its African heritage as “hoodoo” and eagerly anticipates assimilation into America’s middle class. Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), who has returned for the celebration, is the family pariah, shunned by the other women for being a prostitute.
The most volatile conflict is between Nana’s granddaughter, Eula (Alva Rogers), who is pregnant, and her husband, Eli (Adisa Anderson), who believes the father of the child she is carrying is a white rapist. Through a ritual conducted by Nana, Eli eventually realizes that he is the father of the unborn daughter who serves as the film’s occasional offscreen narrator.
Because the characters and their stories are not defined in conventional film-making terms, they are not always easy to follow. The stories, instead of being related in bite-size dramatic chunks, gradually emerge out of a broad weave in which the fabric of daily life, from food preparation to ritualized remembrance, is ultimately more significant than any of the psychological conflicts that surface.
With a running time of nearly two hours, “Daughters of the Dust” is a very languidly paced film that frequently stops in its tracks simply to contemplate the wild beauty of the Sea Island landscape. Even though the heat, insects and threat of yellow fever made the islands inhospitable to white settlement, the movie still portrays that environment, drenched in sea mist and strewn with palms, as a semi-tropical paradise and the Peazants as a blessed tribe whose independence and harmony with nature partly offsets the scars of having been slaves.
“Daughters of the Dust,” which was made in association with the public broadcasting series “American Playhouse,” is the feature film debut of Ms. Dash, who emerges as a strikingly original film maker. For all its harsh allusions to slavery and hardship, the film is an extended, wildly lyrical meditation on the power of African cultural iconography and the spiritual resilience of the generations of women who have been its custodians. Daughters of the Dust Written and directed by Julie Dash; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Amy Carey and Joseph Burton; music by John Barnes; production designer, Kerry Marshall; produced by Ms. Dash and Mr. Jafa; released by Kino International. At Film Forum 1, 209 West Houston Street. Running time: 113 minutes. This film has no rating. Nana Peazant . . . Cora Lee Day Haagar Peazant . . . Kaycee Moore Eula Peazant . . . Alva Rogers Eli Peazant . . . Adisa Anderson Yellow Mary . . . Barbara-O Viola . . . Cherly Lynn Bruce