“This must be the most desolate place on earth.” is uttered in this ethnographic trailblazer from Julie Dash, and the said place is Igbo Landing, on St. Simons Island off the Georgia coast, where lives Gullah islanders, an African-American people distinctively preserves its African traditions and origins.
The story of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST takes place in the turn of the 20th century, and pivots around the Peazant Clan when the family is facing an impending separation as most of them decide to pursue a new, modern life northward in the mainland, whereas the elderly matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), refuses to leave the island where she is born and raised. Weaving its non-linear narrative with a voice-over of the unborn child (Warren), whose dubious parentage is a scathing testimony of Gullah people’s sufferance to the injustice and oppression (although they are not explictly presented here), strewing flashback, spectacular shots of its unique topography, myths (water-walking), rituals (baptism) and supernaturalism (a young girl’s ghost or a surreal shot in the graveyard) intermittently along the way, yet, on a less favorable note, its banally synthesized accidental music (save for some tribal rhythm) fails to leaven the narrative as the icing on the cake, often irritatingly takes us away from its spatio-temporal environs.
It is a shade daunting for a first-time viewer to suss the whole picture of who is who and their familial relations immediately, but it is rewardingly the women’s voices are predominantly heard through a handful of strong characters.Cora Lee Day’s Nana, an obstinate heathen refuses to evangelism but cleaves to memories and mementos of the past in her own superstitious mindset, is a stunning exemplar of what energy and impact those underemployed dark-skinned thespians can generate if they are granted a platform, she is electrifying as the old guard battling mortality and being forgotten, subsists a wisp of spiritual tenacity that becomes her lifeline.Barbarao plays Yellow Mary, one of Nana’s many granddaughters, the black sheep practicing the oldest profession, returns for the last supper with her same-sex lover Trula (Hoosier), is at loggerheads with Haagar (Moore), Nana’s intractable granddaughter-in-law, who aims to sever her family entirely from the backwater, represents the aggressive side of the polarity. Finally, Alva Rogers as Eula, mother of the unborn child and wife of Nana’s great grandson Eli (Anderson), staggeringly performs a quasi-possessed plea of understanding and unification in the climax, conjuring up a most theatrical moment in this otherwise self-reflective, desultory essay honoring Gullah culture and underlining the inexorable generational shift and a muted understanding thereof.
An oddity disinterred from oblivion, and forever enshrinedas the first feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States, Dash's ethereal debut enters that year's Sundance and is recognized for its otherworldly cinematography, but its groundbreaking genesis doesn’t parlay into a successive big screen career for Dash, who is relegated to small screen works mostly and his second theatrical film FUNNY VALENTINES arrives in 1999, and that’s it, does she deserve another chance? For shizzle!