Year Released: 1991
Distributor: eOne/Cohen Media Group
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Daughters of the Dust is a very original and unique film. I really can’t think of too many movies like this one.
-The 25th Anniversary edition DVD was used for this review.
-Check out blkpride’s article about the Gullah people. It’s very informative as well as it’s fascinating.
-Daughters of the Dust is the first movie directed by an African-American woman to get theatrical distribution. Big ups to the fact that it’s also an original screenplay, too.
-Julie Dash wrote, directed, and produced Daughters of the Dust. She has also directed Four Women, Illusions, The Rosa Parks Story as well as two episodes of Queen Sugar. Outside of movies and TV series, she’s directed the music videos for Tony! Toni! Tone!’s “Thinking of You”, Adriana Evans’s song “Love Is All Around”, and easily the most famous example would be Tracy Chapman’s Top 10 hit song “Give Me One Reason”. Also, Julie Dash is of Gullah descent through her dad’s side which played a huge role in making Daughters of the Dust.
-Daughters of the Dust takes place in as well as being filmed in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. That island town still has a huge Gullah presence to this day and has over 8400 people living there. Did you know that there’s a 90s Nickelodeon show that was heavily inspired by that island as well as the culture? That would be none other than Gullah Gullah Island! Part of that show was filmed in nearby Beaufort.
-Culture Bonus: The real life location of Ibo Landing in Georgia is named after the Igbo tribe from Nigeria who were taken as slaves in America. It’s not just the only African reference to the Gullah culture. Eli has a nickname of “Goober head”. The word “goober” is based on the Kikongo (one of the official languages in the Congo as one might guess) word for “peanut” (Nguba) which explains the direct connection of these languages. Speaking of the Congo, there’s a scene where a turtle has a Kongo Cosmogram on it’s shell which is a circle symbolizing four stages of life: birth, life, death, and rebirth. That same symbol was also seen in Petite Noir’s La Maison Noir long-form music video. The Gullah can also claim heritage from the Yoruba (also based in Nigeria as well as Benin), Twi (Ghana), and the Mende (Sierra Leone/Liberia) people. They also have pilgrimages to Sierra Leone in the culture.
-Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album was influenced by this film as noted by several film critics. This may or may not have inspired Daughters of the Dust to be re-released in 2016 regardless of the anniversary. I’m also going to resist a comment about how I wished Queen Bey would credit a certain long-form music video after it was ripped off for a certain remake movie’s soundtrack, but I’d be beating a dead horse (or rather a dead lion in this case).
-Eula was played by Alva Rogers. She has also been in School Daze and Fresh Kill. Outside of her work as an actress, Rogers was the former co-lead singer and original member of noise rock outfit Band of Susans.
-Some of the most famous people of Gullah descent would be Chris Rock, Michelle Obama, radio personality Charlamagne Tha God, late boxing legend Joe Frazier, and American Idol winner Candice Glover.
Recently, I’ve been discovering parts of Gullah culture. For those who aren’t familiar, they are a group of African-Americans where they are mostly based in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia. They are the descendants of slaves who preserved multiple aspects of their original African culture. The Gullah also had a major slave rebellion and lived in isolation from mainland America. To be honest with you, I had no idea about that history until not that long ago. The only time I heard about the Gullah culture was through the few episodes I’ve seen of Gullah Gullah Island when I was a child, but I would’ve never guessed that a Nick Jr show of all things would be associated with a lesser-known part of African-American culture that’s very unique. After doing some of my own research, I wanted to know if there were any films or shows associated with the storied Gullah tribe outside of that kid’s show. What I didn’t expect was this search leading to a film that’s considered to be innovative by the critics as well as being the first movie directed by an African-American woman to get theatrical distribution by Kino films back in the early 90s. Not only that, but it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry which surprised me because I can name way more popular films that were registered over there. The fact that a movie made with only $800K would be alongside major movies such as Beauty and the Beast, Apocalypse Now, or even The Wizard of Oz is quite a feat in and of itself.
Are these accolades justified despite the numerous firsts this film achieved such as an ADOS female director or being the first movie to use the Gullah language as a major form of dialogue?
Daughters of the Dust takes place in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina in 1902. There are three generations of the Peazant family who live in that part of the South. The family is lead by matriarch Nana Peazant while various children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren live in the Gullah community while some return to visit the family from different cities (the mainland as they call it). The film details the lives of the various family members over a day or two, but not in chronological order. There’s Eli and Eula Peazant who are a young couple and the latter is with child. Unfortunately, Eula was raped off-screen by a white man when she visited the mainland. There’s also Viola who is visiting from Philadelphia. She’s the fiancee of a Philly-based photographer (also visiting) named Mr. Snead and became a devout Christian after moving to Pennsylvania while looking down on the traditional Gullah religious worldview. Another visiting family member is Yellow Mary who also moved to the city. She was a prostitute while in the city and eventually started a relationship with another woman named Trula. Yellow Mary considers the community to be backward and not as progressive as the mainland. There’s been important conversations with several of the Peazants as they want to be a part of the Great Migration up north. Who will leave the island to live in a supposedly better place? Also, how many of them will still connect with their long-storied Gullah roots and history?
I go into so many movies and series blind, but I will start out by saying that this is easily one of the most original concepts of a story I’ve seen before. Not just with the Gullah cultural aspects on display, but the usage of the Unborn Child (Eli and Eula’s biological daughter that’s unseen except for some dream sequences) as a major narrator talking years into the future, the story flipping between different times of the day, or having a poetic feel was certainly unique. I don’t throw the term original that often, but Daughters of the Dust certainly fits the bill alongside other things I’ve reviewed such as Haibane Renmei, Hikaru no Go, Presence: Haiku for 5 Boros or Fantastic Planet to name a few which is a huge compliment from me. For a movie made in the early 90s with less than a million dollars, this looks great most of the time. While I wouldn’t call it a neorealism film with some of the effects and narrative style, I will say the scenery and camera work has aged well more often than not. The coastlines and rural settings were shown in such vivid detail. The acting was wonderful. I have seen none of these actors and actresses before in my life, but they all did a fantastic job portraying various emotions. I will say that the speech that Eula makes near the finale hit me in the feels especially her quote of “We wear our scars like armor.” where I almost lost it. Even out-of-context, I could definitely relate to that line so well. I wished the actors would be in more works and get more exposure for their talent.
Seeing the Gullah culture aspects in this film was handled amazingly. The most obvious one involves most of the characters speaking in the language which is English-based creole. Despite most of those dialogue scenes not being subtitled, I could still understand what was being said. There were even words that were fascinating like how “day clean” means “dawn” for example. I will tell anyone this, the Gullah language is NOT Ebonics or “jive talking”. This is completely different and shame on anyone who wants to equate the language or accent to let’s say how the crows in Dumbo talk. Besides, the creators clearly did their research of the culture and Julie Dash is of Gullah descent, so she would certainly be respectful to how everyone was portrayed. Daughters of the Dust even brings up multiple parts of the history such as the aforementioned slave rebellion, the mass suicides of the slaves jumping off ships, the direct African links between the Gullah culture with some of the conversations or a scene where one of the women teaches the children new words, and they even had the courage to use the uncomfortable fact of how it was legal for Caucasians to rape Black people at the time as an actual plot point. How many mainstream movies would even dare mention those historical facts of the Gullah culture let alone how Black people were treated in America at the time? Sure, you don’t see most of those things, but they are discussed with some of the characters. Major props to Julie Dash and everyone for doing their homework while at the same time not being didactic or overbearing with the Gullah culture at large.
There are parts of Daughters of the Dust that could’ve been improved despite my praise of this film. Even though this is a period piece that takes place in the dawn of the 20th century, the film still shows that it was made in the early 90s. While some of the music was good like the African chants or more acoustic pieces, but there were numbers that were obviously made with dated synths for some of the musical effects. The bass tones totally screamed early 90s with the sound design. The slow-mo scenes were really choppy which is a shame because most of the film was shot wonderfully. There was one special effect with the Unborn Child showing up as a spirit for a few seconds which really felt cheap. This is a minor complaint, but I think some of the dialogue should’ve been more specific when it came to African culture. Besides the history of Ibo landing and mentioning that Nigerian ethnic group, I thought they used the term “African” in vague terms with some of the conversations even if they were in passing. I would be more specific as to which parts of Africa were represented by mentioning certain ethnic groups or countries. While it was great to see a large Black family that didn’t feed into the “dysfunctional Black family” portfolio like so many Tyler Perry movies, I did think there was an imbalance in perspectives. I get that part of the title is “Daughters”, so it’s to be expected to have lots of the women had their sides of the story at the forefront, but I would’ve liked to see more of the perspectives of the men like Eli, Mr. Snead, the Cherokee horseman St. Julian, or the patriarch Daddy Mac. I also thought Bilal would have a much bigger role in the story, but that wasn’t the case, too. There were great characters who were believable, but I would’ve liked to know more about the family and community.
Daughters of the Dust does deserve to be lauded. Inaugural aspects aside, this was a highly original film. This was a good example of American art house filmmaking, but the story is still easy for anyone to understand. There’s both dramatic, artistic and educational facets that work so beautifully. It was a great example in looking into Gullah culture. I did wish some things were better like more perspective from different characters or some improved audio production. This is an exceptional film and I wish more people knew about it. I think Daughters of the Dust would be a great addition to film school canon, Black filmmaker lists (regardless of Black History Month), female director lists, or overlooked independent classics. Definitely check this out whenever you have the chance.
T’engky, Julie Dash!
P. S. Here’s some Gullah-related videos I would recommend checking out.
Adjustable Point Scores:
-Add 1 point if you’re interested in Gullah culture.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer your movies to have a clear beginning, middle, and end in the narrative.
-Well-researched facets of Gullah culture and Black history
-Very original story and theme concepts
-Choppy slow-mo scenes
-Some dated music
-Some perspectives could’ve been improved
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Advisory: There isn’t too many offensive things in Daughters of the Dust, but I think it would be on the safe side to show it to teens and up. There aren’t any language issues, but there are some stronger words like “hussy” and “whore” used in narration and conversations. There’s some violence, but it’s quite tame and there’s barely any blood. The most morbid things are Eula and Yellow May being rape victims, but that happened off-screen for the former and mentioned in passing for the latter. There are conversations and narrations that mention the Gullah slave revolt, slavery in general, mass suicides of the Igbo people to avoid being in bondage, lynchings, and forced incest that was sanctioned by the slave trader’s breeding pens. There’s some smoking and chewing tobacco. Yellow May is also in a lesbian relationship with the city slicker Trula, but it’s portrayed in such a low-key way.
All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Daughters of the Dust is property of eOne and Cohen Media Group. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of eOne and Cohen Media Group.