REVIEW: Daughters of the Dust [1991]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 112 minutes
    Release Date: December 27th, 1991 (USA)
    Studio: Kino International
    Director(s): Julie Dash
    Writer(s): Julie Dash

I ain’t got no more dreams, cousin.

The voice we hear is of the unborn child (Kai-Lynn Warren) growing inside Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers). She speaks about the events onscreen from a future that ensures her birth if not her residence—the lynchpin to the entirety of Julie Dash‘s Daughters of the Dust who metaphorically and literally serves as a bridge between old and new. A mainland white man raped Eula and thus the possibility our narrator is his child rather than Eula’s husband Eli’s (Adisa Anderson) eats away at the latter considering just how important family is to his culture, spirituality, and existence. Suddenly he starts questioning the decision the Peazants have made to move to Georgia (the scene of the crime) and relinquish the connection to his ancestors staying on Ibo Landing affords.

It’s an eleventh hour change of heart we infer happens because Eli wasn’t aware until recently. Most everyone is readying their journey to leave the Gullah islands towards the north to start anew. Haagar (Kaycee Moore) is desperate to do so now. She married into the Peazant family and therefore doesn’t have as strong of a hold to the land since his death. Her hope is to give daughter Iona (Bahni Turpin) a better life, one the young girl might not want with her love for Native American St. Julien Lastchild (M. Cochise Anderson) pulling her to want to stay. And with Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) steeled to die where her people died, the physical act of leaving almost adopts an air of disconnecting oneself from history.

That’s pretty much what Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and Yellow Mary (Barbarao) did years ago. One followed Christianity and embraced it into her heart while the other sought the freedom of escape. Both return to Ibo today to document the auspicious occasion of their family joining them across the water. Viola brings a photographer (Tommy Redmond Hicks‘ Mr. Snead) to capture the homeland, Yellow Mary her young girlfriend (Trula Hoosier‘s Trula) and dreams of Nova Scotia upon saying farewell. They are proof of the inevitable change the rest have in store—for better or worse. They’re the only proof Nana needs to retreat to her tin of ancestral power, holding tight to tokens of those she feels inside rather than fantasies of deities not specifically connected by blood.

What occurs is the push and pull experienced by each of these characters with their joint day of reckoning on the horizon. Who will leave and who will stay? Who will be drawn out towards possibilities and who will second-guess what they’ve lost by letting those possibilities strip away a part of who they were? There are questions of faith whether Viola’s war between God and family or Eli’s struggle to accept the love for his baby no matter her origins since she will be his either way. Dash presents the Peazants in a series of self-contained, dream-like vignettes adding context and symbolism to the whole even if their prime goal is to enhance the individuals themselves. We see beneath veneers of optimism and through delusions of peace.

Just look at what this unborn child represents. She’s simultaneously the product of the destructive nature of their oppressors and a force with the power to heal those in the present through the hope of carrying their legacies into the future. Dash has created a turning point for these characters to realize they don’t have to give up on the old ways to survive what’s next. It’s not about replacing the past as much as using it, remembering it can make you stronger. Haagar is right to say they won’t need Nana’s trees of glass bottles anymore, but her vitriol proves she’s not quite ready to recognize why. They don’t need them because their ancestors live inside. Rather than leave them behind, the Peazants can take them along.

Unfortunately for some, however, rediscovering their presence is necessary. One could say Nana staying is a sacrifice to keep a physical connection to Ibo, serving as a satellite ready to transmit out to those who’ve moved around the world. As long as you have the love of those who paved the way inside, you will feel her call. So what does that mean for Viola and Yellow Mary who’ve returned to figuratively put the final nail in Ibo’s coffin as they look to close the door on that part of their lives? What does it mean for Eli, possessed by rage towards the mainland for what it did to his wife and the spirits of his family for not protecting her? One cannot simply let go of suffering.

Daughters of the Dust is thus about old understandings as much as new beginnings. It’s about African Americans finding a way to move forward by letting the horrors they suffered drive them and creating heroes out of those who endured so they might have more. This is a look back on Dash’s own history too with a father from that Gullah tradition as well as an exorcism of demons for a people—personal and universal at once. And it perfectly shows why this isn’t the same road other races took. America’s settlers chose to leave home and adopt a new culture. That change within was purposeful. For former slave families like the Peazants whose past was crucial to survival, letting it go feels like a loss of identity.

It’s therefore through this unborn child who flitters onscreen as though a ghost seen with disbelief through a camera lens or emotional turmoil that we discover the struggle freedom brought the Peazants. A Civil War didn’t stop their pain. An amendment won’t either. Laws are external forces that allow for progress (or condemnation), but they don’t suddenly cleanse you of the complexities of the situation. And there is no correct answer to how one should react as we discover from watching how some of those we knew would leave Ibo decide to stay instead. The connection to this specific earth and its horrors co-existing with its memories through tangible physical remnants of loved ones isn’t to be easily disregarded. Its power is as scary as it is beautiful.

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

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