The rough, raw beauty within “Daughters of the Dust”

Here is a movie that ticks a lot of boxes on the, “Don’t” list of moviemaking. The plot sometimes feels disjointed and meanders quite a bit. There is narration that outright spells out what the whole point of the movie is. Entire subplots come up and then fade into the background of the movie like waves from the sea. The characterization of it’s large cast borders on the esoteric, and while the movie hits on some heavy material, it does err on the didactic side as characters have long conversations spelling out their differences, insecurities and struggles. Yet here is as earnest, powerful and beautiful tale about a people’s struggle to maintain their identity while adapting to a shifting world as there will ever be made. “Daughters of the Dust”, directed, produced and written by Julie Dash is a brilliant, beautiful film that touches upon America’s ugly history and truths regarding Blacks and the struggle for self-affirmation after the abolition of slavery. And it tells this story in ways that not only paints a multifaceted picture of Black people, but is perhaps the closest thing independent moviemaking gets to what Carl Jung described as the addressing of the, “Collective Unconscious” in storytelling, by telling a story so specific to a culture within the U.S. black community. A community I call myself a part of with equal parts of pride, reluctance, fear and desperation, much like the characters of this movie.

While the movie takes a free-flowing approach to storytelling and character development, there is a core conflict. It is 1902, years after the abolition of slavery (legally, anyway, though there’s a certain Ava DuVernay-directed documentary that has a lot to say about that). The Gullah live in an island on the coast of Georgia and some of its members want to leave to go into the mainland, while others like the tribe’s matriarch want to stay. To say that’s it, however, would be missing a whole of beauty, pain and curiosity that lies in this movie, about The Gullah and how they struggle/thrive in this environment, along with the outside world and what it means for them and black folk in general. There is a huge subplot involving the lost child of a couple struggling with self-doubt, with the movie itself narrated by that unborn child. There are also entire sequences that play out like interpretations of Gullah legends as interpreted by the characters themselves, with the old matriarch stressing throughout the importance of remembering where they come from in a modernized world. A pot of Gumbo in this movie carries as much weight as gold would to a modern person, simply because it’s an expression of a culture suppressed by racism and slavery that managed to survive by the will of its people.

There is a narrative stating that slavery in the U.S. was only a long time ago, and that one should, “Get over it”, but here is a movie where the characters speak of such a painful time not just as a form of venting, but also as a reminder of what The Gullah survived. To talk about one’s problems can make one walk the line between grief and chauvinism, but what of a people whose personhood has been challenged and outright denied for centuries? Is their self-reflection on the same level as that of the dominant culture? This movie says, “No, it’s not”, and it does that by simply placing the viewer at their subject’s level, revealing multiple layers while doing so. While slavery is mentioned a lot, the cinematography by Arthur Jafa never loses sight of the people, as they turn their trauma into stories of origin, struggle and triumph as they struggle to grow crops, then happen upon bounties of food and teach of such bounties and the nature that provides them to their children. This all conflicts with the yearning of the younger people, who wonder if there is more to life than just this, but as heated as the rhetoric gets at times, especially by the tribe’s matriarch, the movie doesn’t condemn any side. It simply lets them intermingle, cry, laugh and hope. What is essentially an early 20th century family cookout (with all of the drama/joy that such things usually have) unravels itself into a kaleidoscope of differing views within multiple sides, going back to the very institutions that formed such a kaleidoscope to begin with at the cost of struggle, pain and death.

The movie even has a few interesting elements in the periphery of the Gullah narrative, like sequences featuring a Cherokee man with long hair who at times is seen just riding a horse, but at other times is put to work by the Gullah tribe. Like a lot of things in the movie, this doesn’t necessarily get elaborated upon, it’s just there, suggesting an interesting interaction between blacks and other racial minorities in this era contrary to narratives that simply treats the black community as a giant, indistinguishable collective. By normal moviemaking rules, this would be frustrating, a sign of a narrative flaw, a project where those with the minds of executives would demand that it be tied up in conventional matters. But this is not a conventional movie, because it doesn’t deal with problems that the movie industry dealt with (read: the interests of the American majority). This is a story of a little known part of black identity, The Gullah, and the small triumphs/hopes it gathers in the shadow of the United States of America’s self-image as a land of opportunity and equality in spite of its being built with the blood and oppression of non-whites. It’s dialect may sound foreign (to the point where there are subtitles in some parts of the movie) and it’s ways may seem strange to a western point of view, but just watch and listen. You might just get enraptured and educated. I know I was.

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