Daughters of the Dust

USA 1991, 112 mins
Director: Julie Dash

An island off the coast of Georgia, 1902: a Gullah family is gathered for a last supper before the younger generation leave for the mainland, leaving behind the matriarch Nana and the traditions of their African ancestors. Impressionistic, imaginative and steeped in symbols, myth and history, Dash’s time-bending film combines and contrasts different belief systems to highly original effect.

As a sequel to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust was never made, we never knew what became of the Peazant girls after they crossed over to the mainland from the Sea Islands of South Carolina. That is, until Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade dropped in 2016 and seemed to pick up the story of its gorgeously garbed black women as they struggled to find their way in the New World. Thanks to Lemonade’s distinct homage, Dash’s pioneering movie was rediscovered by a new generation and has now been restored and rereleased in time for its 25th anniversary.

There is something wonderfully apposite about this binding together of eras, given that Daughters of the Dust is itself a contemplation of time’s circularity. The overlaying of past, present and future is the framing device for the film, which offers a rare insight into African women’s spirituality shared across lineages and throughout the diaspora. At a moment when third-wave feminism meets pop culture meets a refreshed black identity politics, Daughters of the Dust remains a futuristic glimpse into the past.

The film is set at the turn of the 20th century among the isolated Gullah community inhabiting the islands off the coast of South Carolina. The descendants of West African slaves, they lived in relative paradise away from the Jim Crow South, speaking their Yoruba-influenced dialect and practising their customs freely.

The tight community is threatened when the sophisticated Yellow Mary, played by Dash favourite Barbara-O, returns from the mainland to take the family with her. Grandmother Nana Peazant represents the past. Her ancient rituals shape the film’s sensual poetry. The present resides in her offspring who, in various states of excitement and anxiety, prepare to leave. The future is embodied in the voice of an unborn child who narrates the last few days in the coastal idyll, highlighting the tension between what once was and what is to come. ‘How you can leave this soil?’ laments Nana Peazant. Watching today, as the #BlackLivesMatter refrain echoes across America’s northern states, we find ourselves lamenting with her.

The marriage between director and material in Daughters of the Dust feels near perfect. Not only is Dash herself a descendant of the relatively small crop of Gullah people, she is also a child of the LA Rebellion, a school of pan-Africanist filmmakers based at UCLA in the 1970s, who took inspiration from post-colonial cinematic movements in Latin America and beyond as well as European neorealism. However, it was her one-time relationship with cinematographer Arthur Jafa, and with production designer Kerry James Marshall (now an internationally renowned painter), that creates the extraordinary feel of the film: the sumptuousness of the costumes, the locations peopled by beautiful black actors, redefine the turn-of-the-century period film. Here the pale blush of Edith Wharton’s heroines become the rich tonal hues of actresses Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers and Adisa Anderson.

Daughters of the Dust took more than ten years to make, having begun as a silent short. The script was rejected by most, but PBS American Playhouse finally stumped up the relatively small $800,000 budget. Particular attention was paid to the verisimilitude of the design. The film was shot on location in the Sea Islands and only materials that the Gullah would have had access to at the time were used, including the hand-dyed indigo and white cotton of the women’s dresses.

In 1992, Daughters of the Dust became the first feature by an African-American woman to be theatrically distributed – helped by another black woman, promoter Michelle Materre of KJM3 Entertainment Group. Materre borrowed pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s distribution techniques and spread the word through black churches and communities.

Like Beyoncé’s Lemonade today, Daughters of the Dust became symbolic of the alternative aesthetic that black female artists had been forging for years, an aesthetic that merged fact with metaphor, the physical with the metaphysical. While Hollywood was still treating black woman as mulattoes, mammies or maids, Dash had already made three seminal shorts – Four Women (1975), Diary of an African Nun (1977) and Illusions (1982) – and filmmakers such as Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982) and Camille Billops (Finding Christa, 1991) had crafted intimate, subjective features based on their experiences as complex artists.

Despite its critical and box-office success, another feature along the lines of Daughters of the Dust never came. Instead Dash continued her trajectory predominantly on the small screen. She made a number of TV movies over the next ten years, including one about civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and worked with leading actresses such as Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Loretta Devine and C.C.H. Pounder.

Twenty-five years on, Daughters of the Dust still feels remarkable. Its rich cinematic language breaks open formal storytelling, allowing a distinct, possibly ancient, voice to emerge that changes the possibilities of cinema for black female filmmakers and viewers.
Gaylene Gould, Sight & Sound, June 2017

Directed by: Julie Dash
©/Production Company: Geechee Girls Productions
In association with: American Playhouse, WMG Pictures
With financial assistance from: Public Broadcasting Service,
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts,
Chubb Group of Insurance Companies
Presented by: American Playhouse
A Kino International release
Executive Producer: Lindsay Law
Producers: Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa
Line Producer: Steven Jones
Associate Producers: Pamm R. Jackson, Floyd Webb, Bernard Nicholas
Production Co-ordinator: Teresa Yarbrough
Production Controller: Kathy Richter
Location Manager: Eric Mofford
Post-production Supervisor: Amy Carey
1st Assistant Directors: C.C. Barnes, Nandi Bowe
2nd Assistant Director: Miller Tobin
Casting: Len Hunt
Written by: Julie Dash
Director of Photography: Arthur Jafa
Camera Operators: Arthur Jafa, N’jia Kai
1st Assistant Camera: William Hudson
Additional 1st Assistant Camera: Robin Melhuish
2nd Assistant Camera: Tommy Burns
Gaffer: Alex Vlacos
Key Grip: Kevin Hamm
Special Effects: Willard Stephens
Editors: Amy Carey, Joseph Burton
Production Designer: Kerry Marshall
Art Director: Michael Kelly Williams
Set Dresser: Ricardo Butler
Prop Master: Peter Knowlton
Construction Foreman: Umar Abdurrahamn
Costume Designer: Arline Burks
Set Costumer: Tiffany Taylor
Make-up Supervisor: Rose Chatterton
Assistant Make-up: Bryan A. Seabrook
Hairstylist: Pamela Ferrell
Titles/Opticals: Atlanta Films Effects, John E. Allen
Dailies: DuArt Film Laboratories
Negative Conforming: J.G. Films Inc
Laboratory: John E. Allen
Original Music by: John Barnes
African Percussions/Vocals: Jesus Pedro Orta, Menge Hernandez, Francis Awe, Bill Summers, Elo
Eastern Percussionists: Manoocheher Sadeghi, Ashhad Khan
Vocalists: Rosa Parrilla, Valentina Soares, Abiola, Dianne Richburg, Felicidad, Yvette Bostic, Radhaz, Hanif Noor Mohammed, Allen Fovary III, Micki Butler
African Percussions/Vocals Co-ordinated by: Bill Summers
Music Recorded at: Off Melrose Studio
Music Mixer/Engineer: Jack Rouben
Sound Recordist: Veda Campbell
Boom Operator: Chris Sibert
Re-recording Mixers: Jeremy Hoenack, Robert Manahan, Melissa Sherwood Hofmann
Re-recorded by: Sound Trax
Supervising Sound Editor: Michael Payne
Dialogue Editors: Ingeborg Larson, Melissa Peabody
Sound Effects Editors: Doug Blush, Ray Greene, Sabrina Stephenson, Jeff Schiro, Joseph Zappala
Walla Group: Holiday Marble, Sparkle Duncan, Teddy Gross, Guadalupe Jones, Rudy Costa, Agusta Stone, Charles Burnett, Geraldine Dunston
ADR Voices: Afemo Omiliani, Taira Miller
ADR Editor: Kris Campbell
Gullah Language Consultant: Ronald Daise

Adisa Anderson (Eli Peazant)
Barbara-O (Yellow Mary Peazant)
Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Viola Peazant)
Cora Lee Day (Nana Peazant)
Geraldine Dunston (Viola’s mother)
Vertamae Grosvenor (hairbraider)
Tommy Hicks (Mr Snead)
Kaycee Moore (Haagar Peazant)
Eartha D. Robinson (Myown Peazant)
Alva Rogers (Eula Peazant)
Cornell Royal (Daddy Mac Peazant)
Catherine Tarver (woman with baby)
Bahni Turpin (Iona Peazant)
Kai-Lynn Warren (the unborn child)
Trula Hoosier (Trula)
Umar Abdurrahamn (Bilal Muhammed)
Malik Farrakhan (newlywed man)
Sherry Jackson (older cousin)
Rev Ervin Green (baptist minister)
Marcus Humphrey, Bernard Wilson (boatmen)
Althea Lang (newlywed woman)
Jasmine Lee, Dalisia Robinson (Peazant babies)
Willie Faulkner, Joe Taylor, Frank Brown, Rueben Fripp (Peazant men)
Derrick Coaxum, Neil Howard (Peazant boys)
Jared Warren, Zenovia Green, Taira Miller, Tiffanye Hills (Peazant children)
Jamar Freeman (Pete)
Detrell Freeman (re-Pete)
Vivian Dawson, Inez Griffin (rice huskers)
M. Cochise Anderson (St Julien Lastchild)
Darrel Cook, Julius Cook (moss gatherers)
Benjamin Gillens (minister’s assistant)
Ronald Daise (processional man)
Marie Smalls (woman being baptised)
Lonnie Moon, DeWitt Parker, Emma Robinson, Taylor Thompson, Virginia Green, Maceo Griffin, Archie Thomas, Raymond Paige, Ervena Faulkner, J.R. Wilson, Wilhemina Wilson (baptismal processional)
Tarell Brown, Shanna Parker, Belle White, Stanley White, Maxine Royalle, Georgia Wiggins, Carolyn Garris, Ella Powell, Bernice Jenkins, Lillian Johnson, Jackie Parker (indigo plantation)
Shanna Johnson (young Nana Peazant)
Leroy Simmons Jr (young Daddy Mac Peazant)
Leroy Simmons (Shad Peazant)

USA 1991©
112 mins


The Brother from Another Planet
Fri 1 Jul 18:05; Wed 6 Jul 20:45
Sat 2 Jul 14:00 (+ intro by June Givanni, June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive); Wed 20 Jul 20:35
Daughters of the Dust
Sat 2 Jul 20:30; Wed 13 Jul 20:40
Yeelen (Brightness)
Sun 3 Jul 15:50; Thu 14 Jul 20:40
Top of the Heap
Mon 4 Jul 18:10; Sat 30 Jul 20:45
In the Afrofuture
Tue 5 Jul 18:20; Sun 17 Jul 16:00
Atlantics (Atlantique)
Thu 7 Jul 20:50; Sun 31 Jul 15:40
Sat 9 Jul 20:50; Fri 22 Jul 18:10
Touki Bouki
Wed 13 Jul 17:50 (+ season introduction); Wed 27 Jul 20:50
The Burial of Kojo
Fri 15 Jul 18:30; Thu 28 Jul 20:40
The Black Atlantic
Mon 18 Jul 18:15 (+ Q&A); Sat 30 Jul 12:00
Eve’s Bayou
Tue 19 Jul 20:45; Thu 28 Jul 18:00

Presented in cultural partnership with Hayward Gallery and Southbank Centre

In the Black Fantastic is an exhibition, curated by Ekow Eshun, of contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction, myth and Afrofuturism. Runs 29 Jun to 18 Sep at Hayward Gallery.

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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