Sunday, August 13, 2017

Daughters of the Dust

Director Julie Dash

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST           A                  
USA  Great Britain  (112 mi)  1991  d:  Julie Dash  

We were the children of those who chose to survive. 
—Unborn narrator (Kai-Lynn Warren)

It is with mixed emotions that one revisits this film, always utterly astonished at the striking beauty of the film, which remains embedded in the subconsciousness of viewers literally for decades to come, like a gold standard in comparison to other films, while also remaining befuddled and disappointed at the lack of opportunities for women in the motion picture business, as this director, the first black woman to release a feature film in the United States, was surprisingly never given another opportunity to make another film, instead working exclusively in television and as a college film instructor.  Despite screening at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, the film still had no distributor until Dash ultimately discovered the New York outlet for Kino films, which almost exclusively distributes foreign films.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kino marketed the film as “a foreign film made in America.”  Released just after Christmas in 1991, not seen by most until the following year, this would be sometime after Spike Lee released JUNGLE FEVER (1991), yet before MALCOLM X (1992), a director who’s gone on to make twenty films since then, or it would be after Terrence Malick made DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), but before the release of his next film THE THIN RED LINE (1998), making half a dozen features since then, while indie filmmaker Richard Linklater just released SLACKER (1991), and has been given the opportunity to make more than fifteen films since then.  So why not Julie Dash?  The answer lies in the paucity of opportunities offered to women and minorities in the motion picture industry, a startling fact that reveals the backwardness of the male-dominated white culture in Hollywood that instead seems content to release an unending supply of blockbuster comic book super hero movies.  The startling originality of this film, however, has remained part of the conversation for decades, lingering in the minds of cinephiles, often discussed but rarely seen, as until recently few had seen it.  Then a mega-million pop star sensation named Beyoncé makes a tribute music video entitled BEYONCÉ: LEMONADE (2016) that premieres on HBO that is seen by millions and becomes all the rage, with haunting visual reminders interspersed throughout that literally duplicate the artistic vision of director Julie Dash and her lone feature made more than twenty-five years ago, spurring a 25th anniversary restoration and DVD release of the film, actually re-screening again throughout the country, while viewers can also watch it on Netflix.  Bear in mind it is Beyoncé raking in the millions, while Julie Dash is relegated to the dustbin of history, very similar to black artists in the music industry in the 40’s and 50’s whose songs were then made into huge hits by white singers, who cashed the ginormous paychecks and lived the Beverly Hills lifestyle at the expense of otherwise forgotten black artists who penned the original songs and received only a pittance in comparison.  Well into the second decade of the 21st century, it’s hard to believe we are re-experiencing those same times all over again.  As one of the characters (Eula) in the film says, bearing a timeless poignancy, “We wear our scars like armor.” 

Written, directed, and produced by Dash, the film premiered at Sundance where Arthur Jafa won the Cinematography Award.  Shot over a period of three weeks on St. Helena Island in South Carolina with an $800,000 budget ($650,000 from American Playhouse and $150,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, receiving the rights to broadcast the film on PBS after its theatrical release), starring a predominately black cast, set in 1902 on a remote island accessible only by boat where slavery existed until the Civil War, working on indigo, cotton, and rice plantations, where the Sea Islands were historically unique, as slaves far outnumbered whites living on the island, yet Africans continued to be transported there half a century after the slave trade was officially prohibited.  Furthermore, because of the presence of malaria, due to the swampy land filled with bugs and mosquitoes, whites stayed out of the rice plantations as much as possible, leaving the segregated slave communities relatively undisturbed.  The first slaves emancipated in the United States were on the Sea Islands at the start of the Civil War in 1861 when federal troops seized the territory.  Vastly outnumbered, plantation owners immediately fled to the mainland, abandoning their antebellum homes, where the land they left behind was considered worthless.  As a result, in this film it is whites who are marginalized, existing only on the fringe (in flashback sequences), instead of minorities.  There were no bridges to the coastal shore in those days, and this sense of extreme isolation contributed to the preservation of the Gullah language, African culture and traditions, along with a daily way of life, with Gullah families working the same farms, growing much of their own food, making their own baskets, as they continue to live in the one-room houses of their ancestors.  The last generation of descendants of African slaves whose elders could actually recall the harsh reality of slavery times, with flashbacks of a prolific indigo-growing past, the film examines the link between three generations of Gullah women of the extended Peazant family living on Ibo Landing as they attempt to bridge the past, present, and future.  Surrounded by giant oak trees littered with hanging Spanish moss, living in a place time seems to have forgot, Gullah comes from a west African language that means “a people blessed by God.”  While intrigued by the languid pace and positively incandescent imagery, where almost the entire film takes place outdoors, yet viewers will have a hard time with the un-subtitled Gullah dialect spoken throughout, which is a masterstroke of invention, which Dash took great pains to reproduce faithfully, something few have ever heard before, spending “10 years researching the Gullah tradition, poring over papers and books in New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, university libraries and the Smithsonian in Washington,” which absolutely places viewers in another time and place, one of the virtues of cinema, becoming something of an historical time capsule.  The family is planning a farewell picnic on the beach, fully dressed in their Sunday finest of bonnets and long white dresses as they prepare a celebratory feast, with half the family planning to make a break from their traditions and leave the islands, heading north to the mainland in search of a better life, filled of hopes and dreams and the possibilities of living in freedom.  Only the oldest, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), the eccentric 88-year old matriarch, intends to stay behind with her tin box filled with “scraps of memories.”  She is the one who constantly emphasizes the importance of retaining spiritual ties with the ancestors, who she views as guardians of tradition and protectors of the family, making her the keeper of griot oral traditions, passing down the family history through myths and stories told to each new generation of children.  Arriving by boat for the occasion is her college-educated niece from Philadelphia, Viola Peazant (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a fundamentalist Christian who sees herself as a Renaissance woman, thinking she has found the proper pathway to the future through the teachings of Christ.  Confident that her education would prevail, thinking she could convince everyone to join her to make the crossing, she is surprised at the resistance, as some remain firmly attached to the simpler times of “the old ways,” such as her cousin, known as Yellow Mary (Barbarao), having experienced first-hand the prejudices and racist brutality of the people on the shore, having worked as a wet nurse and prostitute in Cuba, who could only leave subjugation by damaging herself in the process, returning with a beautiful female lover, Trula (Trula Hoosier), an almost make-believe character who rarely speaks.  Shunned by most in the family, known to have had a white father, Yellow Mary dreams of faraway Nova Scotia as she embraces Nana’s mysticism, much to the ire of Viola.  
Dash, a New Yorker who grew up in the Queensbridge Projects in Long Island City, but every summer she would visit her father’s family in Charleston, who were of Gullah descent, where one of her goals in the film is undoubtedly invested in the project of reclaiming Gullah’s African heritage.  She persistently draws connections between Gullah and African traditions in the film, particularly in terms of spiritual beliefs.  While the film is remarkably lyrical and densely abstract, perhaps the single biggest surprise is a narrator from an unborn child (Kai-Lynn Warren), unseen to the naked eye, yet viewers can watch her magically flit about like an apparition, adding a bit of mysticism throughout, where one of the novel choices (that defied white critics at the time of its release) is telling a non-linear story much like an African Gullah would tell the story, moving backwards and forwards in time, sharing many of the director’s own personal experiences of her youth, like preparing gumbo, eating meals with her family, even gluing okra to her forehead while listening to her grandparents spin stories and myths into her family history.  This is one of the first films to emphasize and appreciate the beauty of dark-skinned women, while not concealing the age-old prejudices held against lighter tones, even among her own family, which is one of the many problems this family must face.  While there are many young girls between late adolescence and early adulthood, the one that stands out is Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), who married into the family, yet she has a major impact in uniting many of the conflicting emotions of the film, addressing the rancor of the back-stabbing comments, many directed at her, believing she was raped by one of the white landowners, leaving her currently pregnant, yet she never utters a word about it, leaving her husband Eli Peazant (Adisa Anderson), already torn between leaving and staying, in a perpetual state of confusion.  Amusingly, the unborn child believes it is her mission to convince him that he’s her father.  But visually, what we see are young girls at play, retelling stories, learning dances, playing games, and sharing their customs, with the island including a healthy mix of African, Muslim, and Indian, where one of the girls, Iona Peazant (Bahni Turpin) constantly fantasizes over the last Cherokee Indian on the island (M. Cochise Anderson), almost always seen riding on a horse, using a change of speed to slow-motion, interjecting a dream state.  Dash prefers to film family members in groups, either entering or exiting the frame, even shooting woman lying on tree branches, as people move in and out of the frame, perhaps seen riding bikes on the beach, or speaking to a family elder, where the choreography of characters within the frame rarely leaves anyone alone, creating a visual expression of family and spiritual camaraderie.  Perhaps accentuating this framing device is the presence of a professional photographer, Mr. Snead (Tommie Hicks), a man hired and brought along by Viola to commemorate this occasion, where the feast on the beach resembles The Last Supper.  In something of a playful manner, the unborn child is initially seen through the photographer’s lens, making an appearance only in the imagination, as when he takes a peek away from the camera, she has disappeared.  The interconnection of the family is continually evolving, much deeper than we initially imagine, as painful personal experiences and deeply-felt family tensions allow multiple perspectives to develop, which is how the story unravels, allowing one character to respond to another, going back and forth, with all sides given equal weight, where there is no right or wrong, as the collective information grasped by the viewer reshapes what we know about the profound differences within the family, with each harboring a distinctly unique point of view.  Interspersed throughout are themes of acceptance and tolerance, where doubts remain even within the family, continually exploring the impact of their connections going back to Africa, where a conflict exists on how to proceed into the future, linked perhaps by the spirit of an unborn child who wields influence in mystifying and indescribable ways.  Examining the connections between various African cultures and American slaves, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. interestingly writes, (page 42), The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, “The most fundamental absolute of the Yoruba is that there exist, simultaneously, three stages of existence: the past, the present, and the unborn.”  Add to this the ghostly spirit awareness expressed in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, where the line of demarcation between the living and the dead seems rooted in this same Yoruba philosophy.  It’s hard not to be impressed by the poetry of the language, where Nana’s opening remarks (though spoken in Gullah) reveal an awesome underlying power, with knowledge suppressed through hundreds of years of slavery, where education was not only prohibited, but brutally punished, yet whose intact survival and conscious existence may defy traditional Western thinking, like something mythological coming out of Altman’s 3 Women (1977), as all women somehow become one,  “I am the first and the last.  I am the honored one and the scorned one.  I am the whore and the holy one.  I am the wife and the virgin.  I am the barren one and many are my daughters.  I am the silence that you can not understand.  I am the utterance of my name.”

Also on the island, seen praying and studying in Arabic, is Bilal Muhammad (Umar Abdurrahman), one of the island elders speaking to an inquiring Mr. Snead, recalling the days when slave ships were anchored off the coast, illegally, revealing a horrific story of what happens when a group of slaves are connected by chains, giving them no chance when they hit the water, as they don’t ever come back up.  On that site rests a mysterious floating icon, a visual reminder of their heritage, a large, black, carved figure of an African man floating in the swamps of Ibo Landing.  Bilal Muhammed is a crucial figure, who never stopped practicing his faith, where his unique background represents a link to a different part of Africa, perhaps Sudan, as throughout the film he is seen praying in Arabic, speaking in French, or French Creole, in addition to speaking the Gullah language.  This cultural complexity contrasts sharply with the innocence of the unborn child, “My story begins on the eve of my family’s migration North.  My story begins before I was born.  My great, great grandmother, Nana Peazant, saw her family coming apart.  Her flowers to bloom in a distant frontier.”  The different histories and experiences of Dash’s characters resists an overly homogenous depiction of Gullah, or blackness, as each individual must decide for themselves whether or not to make this journey, where the film is about saving tradition while confronting the future.  The unborn child comes from a place that might best be described as the future, suggesting the possibility of a future that might be innocent of the past while not ignorant of it, offering a kind of utopian vision of reconciliation, one that seeks to find a way beyond the problems that history has been unable to resolve.  Ever mindful of the past, indigo-dyed hands become a symbol for slavery, a reminder of the work they were once forced to do, where there is an accompanying attachment of shame that comes with it, where Yellow Mary has been “ruint” and Eula has been raped, as sexual abuse is part of the unspoken legacy of slavery.  The uniqueness of the film is that these women embody the scars of slavery, where this is the traumatic past that must be overcome, where the heated exchanges near the end of the film reach impassioned heights, with Eula’s extended monologue serving as the grand climax of the film, embracing her connection to Yellow Mary, as both share a legacy of shame.  “If you’re so ashamed of Yellow Mary ‘cause she got ruint, well, what do you say about me?  Am I ruined, too?”  But she goes further, “Deep inside, we believed that they ruined our mothers, and their mothers before them.  And we live our lives always expecting the worst because we feel we don’t deserve any better.  Deep inside we believe that even God can’t heal the wounds of our past or protect us from the world that puts shackles on our feet.”  This recalls conditions during the Holocaust, with concentration camp prisoners feeling a similar silence or absence of God while confronting the utter futility of their position, surrounded by the stench of death, as there was simply no hope left against such relentless barbarian viciousness.  Yet, where God and religion have failed, Dash strives for a transcendent aesthetic, one led by the innocence of an unborn spirit who delivers the optimism of hope, imagining possibilities in the future that have not yet been seen, perhaps best described as:  “It was an age of beginnings, a time of promises.”  As part of a collective of black UCLA film students in the 70’s known as the L.A. Rebellion, Dash was motivated to create a unique cinematic landscape, an expression of pride and dignity, yet one that showed a special sensitivity to children and their place in black history, offering a transformative vision of a better society.  While the language alone makes this a difficult film to encounter, with history intertwined into the fabric of a densely layered subject matter, where viewers often feel disoriented somewhere along the way, as nothing is explained, yet one of the startling attributes of Dash’s film is finding a new way of seeing, transforming her ideas into a colorful kaleidoscope of impressionistic images, a multicolored quilt that waves in the breeze, clothes hanging on the line, a broken down umbrella found on the beach, and a variety of cotton dresses that the women wear.  With each shot meticulously and purposely crafted, including an ethnically inspired score by John Barnes, certainly Julie Dash’s film was lightyears ahead of its time, disparaged and misunderstood when it was released, yet both the seriousness and sensuousness of the film are unmistakable, using a provocative style that only heightens the vulnerability of such exposed lives, where it’s not enough to bear the burdens of the past, but there must be a means to transform it.  In 2004, the film was determined to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant, as it was selected to the National Film Registry, "Films Added to National Film Registry for 2004".  Just a side note, English subtitles were used in the film’s theatrical release at PBS’s American Playhouse, but they have been dropped from the recent restoration.

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