The three reviews presented here are all positive ones; Dash is commended on the visual beauty of her film. Criticisms do arise, however, surrounding the non-linear nature of the film's plot, and of the choice Dash made to write the film in the heavy Gullah dialect. Both of these aesthetic choices made the film inaccessible to certain types of viewers. However, all three critics agree that the film is able to move audiences through its intense emotions and visual appeal.
Rita Kempley, Washington Post. February 28, 1992.
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"Daughters of the Dust" is an African American family heirloom, a gorgeously impressionistic history of the Gullah people set on the South Carolina Sea Islands at the turn of the century. In the hands of director Julie Dash and photographer Arthur Jafa, this nonlinear film becomes visual poetry, a wedding of imagery and rhythm that connects oral tradition with the music video. It is an astonishing, vivid portrait not only of a time and place, but of an era's spirit.
The story focuses primarily on the women of the extended Peazant family of luxuriant Ibo Landing, a black community descended from the slaves who worked the indigo, rice and cotton plantations before emancipation. Isolated from the mainland, the Peazants have preserved many of the traditions, beliefs and language of their West African ancestors. All that stands to be lost, however, as the Gullah clan prepares to migrate from this paradise to the industrialized North. Only the matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), an 88-year-old mystic, insists on remaining behind with the old souls and her "scraps of memories."
On a summer day in 1902, a farewell picnic is underway on the beach, where the Peazants in their Sunday best are gathered for a feast of shrimp gumbo, fresh clams, yellow corn and johnnycake. The young women, romantic in long white dresses, move as languidly as clouds while a photographer (Tommy Hicks) records them for posterity. Nana's daughter, Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), looks like a bride in her lacy veil, but she is in her family's eyes a "ruint" woman. A wet nurse and a prostitute, she has just returned from Cuba with her beautiful lover. She naturally finds herself in conflict with her cousin Viola (Cherly Lynn Bruce), a fundamentalist Christian who rejects Yellow Mary's morals along with Nana's spiritualism.
There is also conflict between Nana and her dour sister-in-law (Kaycee Moore), an outsider who considers the "Geechee" ways backward and dreams of assimilation. Meanwhile, Nana seeks solace from the ancestral spirits who have gathered for the birth of her great-granddaughter (Kai-Lynn Warren), whose mother, Eula (Alva Rogers), was raped by a landowner. It is the precocious unborn girl's job to convince her father (Adisa Anderson) that he, not the rapist, is truly her father. The spirit girl, who sometimes mysteriously shows up in the photographer's compositions, is also the movie's narrator, a guide who unites the Gullah past with the future that might be.
A multidimensional family drama spoken in the patois known as Gullah, "Daughters of the Dust" is not always easy to follow, nor does it reward viewers with neat resolutions. As Dash intended, her film enfolds us in its dark arms and ancient sensibilities.
Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle. February 14, 1992.
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I'd wager that the portrait of turn of the century African-American women you get in Daughters of the Dust is like nothing you've ever seen before. This richly costumed historical drama focuses on the dreams and remembrances of the extended Peazant family. This clan, with its strong female leadership, inhabits a Gullah Sea Island off the coast of Georgia. They are the descendants of the African captives brought there to work the isolated island wetlands while the white landowners stayed securely on the mainland. There developed amongst these removed African captives, a distinct language called Gullah or Geechee whose vocabulary is primarily English but whose intonations and grammar are predominantly West African. In tandem with their insular speech patterns, there developed amongst this all-black community a resonant culture infused with the rituals, spiritualism, beliefs, symbols and stylings of their West African ancestors. Against this backdrop, Dash devises this tale of the Peazant family who, in 1902, are on the verge of departing their island home and resettling up north. It's at once a story about a specific cluster of people as well as a story about the African-American Diaspora. The constellation of characters span a range of reactions to their migration and dispersal. Nana, the great-grandmother, prefers to remain behind with the "old souls" and her rusting tin can full of "scraps of memories." Haagar anxiously anticipates their urban migration, wanting nothing to do with her "primitive" African heritage. Viola has traded her ancient tribal spiritualism for heavenly Christian monotheism. Yellow Mary is a tainted woman who worked in Cuba as a prostitute and is on her way to Nova Scotia with her "girlfriend" Trula when she stops in for this final family gathering. Eula is a link between the past and the future. Content either to stay or to go, she carries the next generation within her womb, even though the inseminator might be a white rapist. Daughters of the Dust moves with a lyrical beauty that blends hopes, memories, heritage and generational bonds into the limitless expanse of an island horizon. At times this heady swirl is confusing to follow, though I suspect that Western linear narration was never this movie's goal. The mysterious Gullah accents that concurrently sound both familiar and foreign don't help our Western understanding much either, although they do lend an air of authenticity and poetry to the events. Neither slave nor mammy, junkie nor maid, these dawn-of-the-twentieth century African-American women are an unstereotypical breed unto themselves.
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times. March 13, 1992.
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Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" is a tone poem of old memories, a family album in which all of the pictures are taken on the same day. It tells the story of a family of African-Americans who have lived for many years on a Southern offshore island, and of how they come together one day in 1902 to celebrate their ancestors before some of them leave for the North. The film is narrated by a child not yet born, and ancestors already dead also seem to be as present as the living.
The film doesn't tell a story in any conventional sense. It tells of feelings. At certain moments we are not sure exactly what is being said or signified, but by the end we understand everything that happened - not in an intellectual way, but in an emotional way. We learn of members of the Ibo people who were brought to America in chains, how they survived slavery and kept their family memories and, in their secluded offshore homes, maintained tribal practices from Africa as well. They come to say goodbye to their land and relatives before setting off to a new land, and there is the sense that all of them are going in the journey, and all of them are staying behind, because the family is seen as a single entity.
"Daughters of the Dust" was made by Dash over a period of years for a small budget (although it doesn't feel cheap, with its lush color photography, its elegant costumes, and the lilting music of the soundtrack). She made the film as if it were partly present happenings, partly blurred racial memories; I was reminded of the beautiful family picnic scene in "Bonnie and Clyde" where Bonnie goes to say goodbye to her mother.
There is no particular plot, although there are snatches of drama and moments of conflict and reconciliation. The characters speak in a mixture of English, African languages and a French patois. Sometimes they are subtitled; sometimes we understand exactly what they are saying; sometimes we understand the emotion but not the words. The fact that some of the dialogue is deliberately difficult is not frustrating, but comforting; we relax like children at a family picnic, not understanding everything, but feeling at home with the expression of it.
The movie would seem to have slim commercial prospects, and yet by word of mouth it is attracting steadily growing audiences. At the Film Forum in New York, it has grossed $140,000 in a month. The Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago did standing-room business last January, and brought it back again. It opens commercially today at the Fine Arts in Chicago, and in selected other markets.
People tell each other about it. "I've seen it three times," a woman told me the other night at the Film Center. "I get something new out of it every time." It is all a matter of notes and moods, music and tones of voice, atmosphere and deep feeling. If Dash had assigned every character a role in a conventional plot, this would have been just another movie - maybe a good one, but nothing new. Instead, somehow she makes this many stories about many families, and through it we understand how African-American families persisted against slavery, and tried to be true to their memories.