By Yasmina Price
When it came out in 1991, Daughters of the Dust accomplished the seemingly impossible—comparably high and consistent ticket sales in the US for a film that was made by a Black woman, and almost entirely concerned with crafting a visual language dedicated to holding multiplicities of Black women. This successful reception was surprising given that structural exclusions that were known to make securing financing difficult for a Black woman filmmaker were also mirrored in the lack of support for distribution. As the first American feature directed by a Black woman to receive a general theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust holds a unique place in the cinematic terrain. Yet this was not enough to secure a career in Hollywood for Julie Dash, whose sole feature film to date is this one.
The celebratory tones that accompany the inaugural entries of filmmakers marginalized from the mainstream expose a problem of framing and should be met with some skepticism. However extraordinary they may be, these always belated arrivals rarely result in the sort of sustained paradigm shifts that their appearances seem to herald. While it is a critical historical fact, Daughters of the Dust’s position as a “first” is only illustrative of the indisputably racialized and gendered structural exclusions of dominant cinematic circuits. It tells us little about the film itself. Rather than seeing it in exceptionalizing terms with respect to a restrictive U.S. industry, Dash’s defiant lyric should be reframed and situated as part of a circuit of diasporic independent black cinema and Black women’s cultural production across media. The film is as gorgeously unbound from a system that could never accommodate it as it is nestled in a vibrant global lineage of liberatory artmaking.
Even while certain shorthand may isolate Daughters of the Dust for the singular status of its release, the film itself is a quilt of connections. Despite her alignment with the L.A. Rebellion, Dash herself complicates an overdetermined separation between those filmmakers and their almost contemporary equivalents on the East Coast. She was born and raised in New York City and began her training by attending workshops at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Her entry point into filmmaking was as a technician, a true student of the apparatus itself. Beginning her work as a production assistant while earning her B.A. at City College of New York, Dash crossed paths with Kathleen Collins, who became a colleague and good friend, and whose feature Losing Ground (1982) can be seen as a forerunner to Dash’s breakthrough. The emergence of Daughters of the Dust seems aberrant only when disconnected from the rich circuits of black cultural production that nurtured it. The imaginative extravagance and stunning expressivity of the film are mobilized against this sort of restrictive framing without falling into flattening universalisms.
Dash’s film is motivated not so much by a search for an essential origin as by the kaleidoscopic reassembly of communities after the violences of slavery, colonialism, and dispersals of Black peoples in the Americas.
Dash’s film should be considered in relation to the L.A. Rebellion, but carefully. Daughters of the Dust illustrates her work as an experimental filmmaker, rigorously working a technical craft counter to Hollywood’s normative thematic and cinematic protocols. The L.A. Rebellion refers to a community of independent Black filmmakers—which included Zeinabu irene Davis, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough, Larry Clark, Billy Woodberry, and Charles Burnett—formed in the aftermath of the Watts riots and a 1969 shooting of two Black Panther Party members on the UCLA campus. The group launched an ethnographic studies program to address the local communities of color being actively imperiled by UCLA. They were also politically aligned with anti-Vietnam mobilizations, the Black Liberation movement, and anti-colonial cinemas globally, such as Brazil’s Cinema Novo and Argentina’s Grupo Cine Liberación. This grounded their cinematic work in the larger Third-Worldist cultural and political sphere. The L.A. Rebellion nurtured a revolutionary imagination, anchored in the particularities of their material circumstances, toward the formation of an independent black visual culture.
This context is crucial in considering the historical placement of Daughters of the Dust because it foregrounds Dash’s participation an emancipatory, diasporic foundation for the work of creating and restoring black images. However, it is equally important to note the specificities of Dash’s connection to the L.A. Rebellion. She started her own film graduate work at the American Film Institute, and moved to UCLA in 1976, after the L.A. Rebellion group had already been in formation for some years. This time lag perhaps accounts for a crucial difference between Dash’s work and the more overtly politicized rubric of the L.A. Rebellion. A generalization of the group’s output would note a consistent interest in direct conflicts with oppressive systems and more external forms of rebellion that doesn’t track with Dash’s narrative choices. There were also blurry and uneven but still perceptible gendered differences in the colleague’s filmographies. As exquisitely demonstrated in Daughters of the Dust, Dash operated in softer and more aesthetically driven registers, weaving folklore and historical inquiry into a dedication to how communities, traditions, and continuation are nurtured.
Although the film came out in 1991, financing issues as well as Dash’s meticulous research process meant that it was already in the works in the 1980s. The full frame of the cultural currents that led to Daughters of the Dust would have to consider in particular the Black women’s literary renaissance of the 1970s and its continued effects in the following decade. The film’s investment in crafting a Black woman’s gaze, refuting monolithic representations, operated in a larger circuity of cultural production across film, music, dance, and literature. Dash’s work was in conversation with the writings of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and particularly Toni Cade Bambara. In 1992, a year after her film premiered, Dash collaborated with Bambara and bell hooks to release a book titled Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The text is revelatory of the rich, intricate exchanges between Black women artists across media and offers a compelling account of the process of making the film.
Dash gathered her own constellation of influences and interlocutors. Her film work is also self-referential: the shorts that were made prior to Daughters of the Dust are crucial to framing the feature. The Diary of an African Nun (1977), an adaptation of a short story by Alice Walker, is about a Ugandan nun who questions her faith, and Illusions (1982) contends with racial passing in 1940s Hollywood. Between them, they reveal her diasporic framework, consideration of racializing structures, and collaborative method. However, it is Dash’s experimental short Four Women (1975), in which she worked with dancer Linda Martina Young to create a choreo-poem set to Nina Simone’s song of the same name, that bears a particularly interesting relation to Daughters of the Dust. With Young incarnated as the four women described in the song, the short is a transcendent realization of a fusion between Simone’s musical narrative, the dancer’s embodied enactment, and Dash’s fluid visual textures. The collective choreographies, attention to gesture, and multiplicitous being of Black women in Daughters of the Dust can be traced to this short film.
Throughout its reception, Daughters of the Dust has regularly been ascribed not just to “art-house cinema,” which is unsurprising, but also to “foreign” film, with respect to the U.S. Dash counted the cinemas of Sergei Parajanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Isaac Julien, and Satyajit Ray as points of reference in her image-making. These aesthetic inspirations complicate the systematic organization of film history along national lines, prompting another reframing. In this respect aligned with L.A. Rebellion, Dash’s film works the spaces of interconnectedness between diasporic networks of black visual culture and transnational filmic reciprocities.
In addition to vibrant exchanges between Black women cultural producers and these global networks of cinema, Dash recruited the visual artist Arthur Jafa as director of photography and painter Kerry James Marshall as production designer. Daughters of the Dust is in fact an exceptional prismatic fulcrum of black visual craft. Impeccably constructed by Marshall’s gossamer set and Jafa’s lithe camera movements, Dash’s film claimed a resolute commitment to beauty and storytelling as its strategy. As Dash noted in a lecture for the National Gallery of Art in 2020, the small production team for the film followed an ethos of “economy of means and richness of expression.” Marshall built many of the objects and sets himself, attesting to an unusually artistically driven production for a film. Between this and Jafa’s original training as an architect, it becomes clear how the film’s breathtaking visuals emerged from both the attentiveness to minutiae and a sweeping spatial sensibility.
Daughters of the Dust opens with a text. The film situates itself as a historical retelling, a method of both archival research and imaginative intervention, which cannot be singularly defined. Dash notes her own family as a starting point, suggesting the scope of personal and collective memory-making and how cinema might participate in these excavations. Dash took on a careful and rigorous research process to approach the story of the matriarchal Peazant family, part of the Gullah (or Geechee) community in the Sea Islands off the South Carolina/Georgia Coast. In 1902 they find themselves at a moment of rupture, contemplating a collective migration to the North even as they know their particular social and cultural heritage—a rich, syncretic formation preserved from the West African descendance of enslaved people in the area—might not survive. The Gullah people’s forms of creolization are not only part of the story but also reflected in Dash’s expansive cinematic method.
Dash’s film is motivated not so much by a search for an essential origin as by the kaleidoscopic reassembly of communities after the violences of slavery, colonialism, and dispersals of Black peoples in the Americas. Daughters of the Dust is an imaginative terrain on which irresolvability can be allowed to stay both unfixed and apprehensible. It is critical that the film is not only predominantly populated by Black women but that there are a wide range of contesting subject positions assigned to Black women. There are two narrators: Nana (Cora Lee Day), the elder matriarch who represents the living memory of the Peazant family’s ancestry and sociocultural systems, and the Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren), who is both phantasmic and prophetic. Occupying only seemingly opposing temporalities, they disrupt the stability of a singular, authoritative narrator. Instead, they provide the bookends of a chorus, a polyphonic voice that can hold the generations of the Peazant family. Another false binary is between Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a Christian missionary, and her cousin Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), whose temperaments and positional particularities clash but also emerge from a shared protectiveness of their family. The women represent an expansive intergenerational scope, also ranging in color and tone. In a departure from today’s colorist norms, the storyline concerning Iona (Bahni Turpin) is the central romantic impulse of the film, and the darker girls and women do not make up the minority of Black women characters.
The fundamental crisis of the film is how the Peazant family will fragment with the migration North, split between those who choose to stay and those who are determined to go. Daughters of the Dust unfolds as a set of visual encounters of the separated and reunited women of the Peazant family, who reread and recode each other’s shifting positionalities as they try to resolve a collective future that allows for their opposing choices. Dash’s aesthetic syncretism renders this scope of individuation and collectivity. Even as they are all—except for Nana—costumed in white dresses, the girls and women in the film retain individual stylizing, reflected particularly in their hairstyles. The original music by John Barnes also assigns the main characters their own accompanying sonic motifs. The minor, particular visual keys of the film are manifested in the many tight shots and close-ups of domestic and recreational tasks, particularly focusing on characters’ hands as they braid hair, fold clothes, prepare food, flip though books, and play. This manual language is one form of choreography in the film, which is also remarkable for its airy, mobile tableaux shots.
The spatial logic of the film is one of expansive openness. In the collaborative book, Bambara clarifies the film’s process of “eschewing of the master narrative in favor of a nonlinear, multilayered unfolding” and the use of “shared space.” Daughters of the Dust stages a narrative negotiation of staying and going that is aesthetically expressed through an exquisite play of choreographed movement and containment. The film has a meta-cinematic interest in framing and reframing. One of the few characters who is not part of the Peazant family is Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks), a photographer from the mainland who is commissioned by Viola to take family photographs as a way to document a moment of transition, just before their family separates. In other words, Viola’s desire is to commit this moment to stillness and also to memory, a form of visual history-making that is not dissimilar to Dash’s project with the film itself.
In Daughters of the Dust, this never-ending process of reframing is staged through the family photographs: in the scenes involving the family portraits, the characters are framed by Dash and Jafa in one way and by Mr. Snead in another, but there is a constant threat (or promise) of overspill from both. The moments of possible containment are the attempts by Mr. Snead to make the family gather in particular configurations, marking how the film proceeds through a multitude of choreographies. Yet just as Daughters of the Dust unsettles a dominant regime of history, and shows what is outside its borders, the Peazant family will not stay in frame. There are moments when the moving image inexplicably pauses into a still and others in which the stillness is delivered as the photographs are taken by Mr. Snead. Daughters of the Dust is caught in a looped ecstasy, oscillating between exuberant movements and the attempts to mechanically freeze them in time.
The fluid choreographies of Daughters of the Dust enact Dash’s reframing of what lays outside of cinema. At stake in Dash’s film is the question posed by every shoreline: an irresolvable meeting point that is not quite sand or water, but a liminal place. Dash’s hypnotically elusive style is one of intense visuality, which also delivers itself like an oral history. The images we are seeing on the screen are only elliptical glimpses that are shimmering just above the story of the Gullahs, slavery, migration, and diasporic Black lifeworlds. The assurance of a future that Daughters of the Dust delivers is a collective dance from the past.
With my thanks to Jocelyn Proietti, for insights and clarity in our conversation about Julie Dash and this film.
Yasmina Price is a writer, researcher, and PhD student in the Departments of African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. She focuses on anti-colonial African cinema and the work of visual artists across the Black diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Recent writing has appeared in The Current (Criterion), The New Inquiry, The New York Review of Books, and Vulture.