There’s no denying that we’re living in a day and age where discussing slavery in the cinema is popular. In 2012 Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter were just some of the many titles centering their plots on issues of wrongful human bondage. These modern day cinematic slave narratives are also some of the films of recent that have, for better or for worse, raised many eyebrows and generated a national discourse that fizzled out in the wake of soothing terms like ‘affirmative action’. That’s why Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has never been as much of a culturally relevant, narratively adroit and undeniably crucial film to watch. Only about a week after Barack Obama asserted in his inaugural address that “our journey is not complete until our wives, mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” Daughters of the Dust raises similar culturally significant issues that the blood spurts and bullets of popcorn flick glitz of movies like Django Unchained and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter have alacrity blurred out in favour of high octane action. Opening the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s L.A. Rebellion retrospective (starting this Thursday and running through February 19th), Daughters of the Dust (screening Thursday, January 31st at 8:45pm) boasts a dreamy, emotionally charged narrative that floats us through the complex aftermath and cultural implications of slavery.
Daughters of the Dust introduces us to the indomitable members of the Paezant clan: a large family of African slave descendants living on St. Helena Island—a real life cache for slaves who were in transit from Africa. With a narrative that stitches together the thoughts of the Paezant’s elder, Nana Paezant (Cora Lee Day), her daughters Yellow Mary (Barbarao), Eula (Alva Rogers) and even Nana’s unborn granddaughter, we gradually familiarize ourselves with the complex, racially-tangled lineage of this family who we meet idling at a risky crossroad. As the Paezants debate the benefits and potential hazards of staying on the island or migrating North, Daughters of the Dust eerily raises many post-colonial, African American issues. Most notably, the movie points out the challenges and familial pressures that even first generation African American women dealt with.
Dash is heralded as one of the core members of the L.A. Rebellion: a name appointed to the group of young, African American UCLA graduate filmmakers whose influence has been linked to the style and consciousness usually embodied in contemporary Black Cinema. While it’s true that Dash’s name rightfully belongs beside her rebel cohorts like Killer of Sheep director Charles Burnett, the significance of Daughters of the Dust continues to be crucial beyond compare. Not only is Dash’s well plodded discourse and uses of un-subtitled Gullah creole admirable, but being the first feature film directed by an African American woman to receive wide theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust exists as an accolade to both the black, and female communities.
As Nana Paezant eerily narrates that “she is the first and the last…I am the whore and the holy one,” Dash immediately engages us with one of the most clever functions of Daughters of the Dust’s unique narration. By embracing traditional, oratory storytelling techniques, Dash plunges us into the cesspit-odyssey of confusion that is post-colonial slave culture. Through the gaze of characters like Eula, who is raped by a plantation owner, or Bilal (Umar Abdurrahamm) who is considered a heathen for his Islamic faith, Dash stirs a well-crafted discussion about these specific dilemmas and their particular relationship to the fallout of American slavery.
However, as our cultural landscape continues to unfurl into an uncertain direction, Dash’s commentary is no longer subject to being dissected only through the gaze of an African American diaspora. Now that women’s ability to regulate their own sexual rights is being challenged on national levels, Dash’s foray between the past, present and future of this issue stands out as remarkably relevant. It is the vast years that Dash spans between issues, like Eula’s husband agonizing over what to do with her now that she has been ‘spoiled’, that makes our realization of the enduring existence of these national dilemmas alarming and infuriating. Daughters of the Dust gets stuck in your head like haunted antebellum tune that strangely still pangs true.