In the late ’80s, when filmmaker Julie Dash was raising money for her directorial debut, Daughters of the Dust, she met with resistance. “It’s been done,” people told her, citing the TV series Roots, the movie Sounder and even Gone With the Wind. Few of these potential funders recognized the breadth and originality of Dash’s vision. When the film premiered in 1991, it stunned people.
“Daughters was a major aesthetic leap forward for black cinema in that it did not mimic Hollywood storytelling but drew on European art house films, African traditions and created its own idiosyncratic style,” said author and filmmaker Nelson George. “It emerged in a vibrant period for black cinema in America but stood out from the rest.”
Dash’s film is being reissued this week to celebrate its 25th anniversary. It will be screened at Film Forum in New York City starting Friday with a national rollout to follow. The reissue is cause for celebration of one of the great overlooked works of contemporary American cinema, but it’s also cause for an examination as to why this film didn’t propel Dash’s career.
Daughters of the Dust was one of many films in the late ’80s and early ’90s that followed the success of Spike Lee’s early work, but aside from the race of its characters, Dash’s movie bore little resemblance to the work of John Singleton, Matty Rich or the Hughes Brothers. Instead, her film was a historical drama set on Dawtuh, one of the low-country islands where the Gullah and Geechee culture of South Carolina thrive, on a single day in 1902 as the members of the Peazant family prepare to join the Great Migration and leave the island for “the mainland.”
The film’s methodical pacing enables the viewer to appreciate the splendor and diversity of African culture and ritual that are maintained on the island. It heightens the tension between those leaving for the promise of the urban North and those who choose to stay. Another innovation is that the story is largely told through the eyes of its female protagonists; according to George, it’s a trait that puts the film in a lineage with the great literature of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. “Its haunting images have endured precisely because Daughters presented a unique vision of the black American experience,” he said.
Dash resisted efforts to classify her film as a niche or art film. “Everybody has a family,” she said with a laugh during a phone interview last week. “Every family has issues about legacies and carrying forward.” She continued, “I made the movie from an African-American woman’s perspective on growth and change.”
The film won the Cinematography Award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and was a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize. And after that, crickets. Although Dash has a project ready to go about the Eleanor Roosevelt Battalion, an all-African-American female unit that served during World War II, the project remains stuck in the fundraising stage while she’s directed several cable movies and teaches cinema, television and emerging media at Morehouse College.
Richard Brody, a film critic for the New Yorker, considers it a shock. Last year he wrote a short piece to accompany a video praising the movie, saying, “Daughters of the Dust is one of the most distinctive, original independent films of the time. Richard Linklater released Slacker in the same year and has made 15 features since then. Some of them are excellent, but neither Slacker nor any of the others can hold a candle to the inventiveness of Daughters of the Dust.”
Harlem-based author and musician Greg Tate broke it down like this: “The short answer is the same reason Melvin Van Peebles gives to why [1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song] didn’t propel his career—‘I did the worst possible thing. I beat the system at its own game and I won.’”
Tate likened Dash’s work to other filmmakers of her time like Charlie Burnett and Euzhan Palcy, each of whom made acclaimed films but failed to sustain a career as a director. “If white women who actually get work in Hollywood complain about sexism and opportunity, you don’t need much imagination to get why a black woman only interested in telling complex black women’s stories can’t rustle up four to eight million dollars.”
Both Tate and George agree that Daughters of the Dust is not some cultural artifact of a long-ago time. “The Knowles sisters have made it esthetically relevant again,” said Tate. “Bey did by making it the template for much of Lemonade, and Solange hired Dash’s [director of photography] Arthur Jafa because he was the cat who shot Daughters.”
George took a long view: “It is not unusual for revolutionary works to be discovered several generations from when it was first released. Daughters is in that tradition and will be informing black visual expressions for years to come.”