Julie Dash

7.3 Daughters of the Dust (1991) Links:

Julie Dash (USA, 1952) was still a student when she directed Diary of an African Nun (1977). After several shorts, including Illusions (1982), she directed her lone major film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), which is also the first major film directed by an African-American woman. The film mixes a documentary/ ethnographic style with a poetic, mythological style that connects the present lives of the former slaves with the slaves who came from Africa. There is a conflict between those who perceive time as cyclical, those who perceive the continuity between one generation and the other, and those who perceive the need to break with the past and embrace different values. The story hangs between two temporal extremes: the grandmother who is about to die and the unborn child. In between the conflict of values rages: one woman who has been "ruined" by modernity longs for a return to the innocence of the ancestral land, one woman who has been oppressed all her life by the ancestral land longs for modernity, a girl in love chooses love over anything else, a couple that has been tested by destiny chooses modernity but without severing ties with the ancestral land. In 1902 in the Sea Islands of the South (off the coast of Georgia) a Muslim prays to Allah. An elegantly dressed middle-aged black woman, Viola, and an elegantly-dressed black photographer, Snead, wait on the bank of a river for a boat. A boat comes rowed by three black men carrying a black woman wearing a fancy white dress and a mulatto woman. Viola calls her "cousin Mary". The narrating voice is of a child was not born yet at the time of these events. The unborn child informs us that the oldest member of the family is her mother's granma Nana who revers the ancestors who came from Africa. Viola tells the photographer that her uncle came from Africa, traded as a slave well after the USA had banned the slave trade. Waiting for them is cousin Haagar, who has two daughters, Iona and Myown. Nana, grandmother (?) of Haagar's husband and of Viola and of Mary, meditates about the people born free in her family who are now about to migrate "north" (i.e. to the more modern mainland) with many others. Iona reads a letter written by her lover, a Cherokee boy who grew up with her and who now begs her to stay on the island. A young man, Eli, who is going north with Haagar, promises granma Nana to come and visit. Nana reminds him that their ancestors watch over the living. Eli is scornful of superstitions because they didn't protect his wife Eula from a rapist. Eula now is pregnant and Eli clearly suspects that it is not his child. Nonetheless, Nana trusts him to keep the family together when they move north. Granma invokes the unborn child in Eula's womb. Left alone, Nana meditates that the swamps were the worst place to be born as slaves. Viola and the photographer arrive. Haagar and other women of the family are not happy to see Mary and her mulatto girlfriend Trula, but Eula runs to hug Mary. Mary clearly does not belong there: she's the product of a decadent city lifestyle, and her mulatto friend seems to be more than just a friend. Eula is the only one excited to see Mary. Haagar is suspicious about the real reason behind Mary's visit.
Viola, a devout Christian, talks to the children about Bible and about her own story. Mary visits Nana, who welcomes her in tears. The photographer, Snead, walks around with a heavy camera to document life on the island. Eula tells Mary that she was visited by her mother at night, but Mary reminds her that her mother has been dead a long time: Mary does not believe in these superstitions that are common on the island.
Mary tells Eula that they live like savages in the island. Mary approves that Eula didn't tell Eli who raped her (presumably a white man): pointless to cause another murder. Mary tells Eula that her baby was born dead, and how she was basically sold by her own family to a rich white family to nurse their baby, and so she grew up on the mainland and that "ruined" her (she became a prostitute).
The narrating voice of the unborn child tells us that she struggled to convince her father that she was his child.
The photographer looks at a group of men in the camera and sees the ghost of a little girl smiling. One of the men in the group tells him about the old man Bilal, who came as a slave from Africa on the very last steamship.
We see Iona hugging her Cherokee boyfriend at the beach.
Nana always carries a tin can full of scraps of memories. The other women are discussing whether to leave Nana behind or not. Haagar, who is annoyed by Nana's superstitions, and who lost her husband and raised her daughters alone, is perfectly fine with leaving Nana behind. Haagar is looking forward to a more modern life.
Eli and the other men are playing social games. Eli's cousin Bilal is working on an anti-lynching law and asks Eli to join the effort, but Eli is disillusioned.
The unborn child comments about the history of her race while we see blacks boiling indigo (in ancestral times). We see her ghost running into her mother's womb at the cemetery.
Nana's voiceover remembers how they lived during slavery while they gather to celebrate their ancestors who came from Africa. We see a floating wooden sculpture of an African man and Eli pushes it in the current. Nana remarks that Eula's child will be the first child of the family to be born north.
Mary and Trula tell Eula they are headed for Canada.
The photographer asks to meet old Bilal, the last one to come from Africa (presumably the "uncle" that Viola talked about). Viola warns him that old Bilal is a superstitious man. Eli takes him to Bilal. Bilal tells the photographer how he came from French colonies on the same ship that was carrying the last African slaves. The legend says that the African slaves walked on the water back to the ship but the reality is that they committed mass suicide, still in shackles. The men assemble around Bilal to hear his story.
Suddenly, Mary tells Nana that she wants to stay on the island with her, causing Trula to run away upset. Haagar is the one who despises Mary the most. Eula defends Mary, feeling ruined just like her after the rape. Eula tells the other women that there never was a pure woman in their family.
We see a flashback of young Nana asking how to plant vegetables in the dust.
Nana invites everybody to kiss a Bible to which she has attached "scraps of memories", items that reconnect them to their ancestors. Haagar, eager to leave all that nonsense behind, refuses to kiss the book.
A Muslim is praying by the sea.
Haagar, her daughters, Eli, Eula and others board the boat. Nana bids farewell. The Cherokee boy rides in on his horse and Iona jumps out of the boat on his horse, leaving her mother desperate. Mary remains with Nana.
The unborn child narrates what happens to Eli and Eula in the new world. She tells us that she was born before Nana died.

Dash later made the television movies Funny Valentines (1999), Incognito (1999), Love Song (2000), The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Brothers of the Borderland (2004) is an immersive film.

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