Black Independent Cinema: Daughters of the Dust and Family Tradition

I watched Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust twice yesterday. I read an interview with her and bell hooks (who spells her name without caps) talking about what the film meant, who was its intended audience, and its aesthetic. Before reading this interview (that I couldn’t put down) I watched Daughters right after I woke up that morning. It was cold and I was wrapped up in a quilt drinking a coffee in an empty house. I felt virgin to the day, fresh to day-to-day struggle and innocent to tainting decisions of maturity. Eyes just opened, I lent them to the screen and became a part of the story.

Daughters is a drama of somewhat mythical proportions that follows a Gullah family for one special day of celebration and goodbyes. “Gullah” is a way of life for a particular group of African Americans who were brought to and live in the sea islands of the South, and who created a specific African culture. The language is mostly English but the grammatical and intonational features are very much West African. These people have had the privilege to maintain their African-born speech and customs because the unabridged waterways isolated them from the mainland for years (abridged from http://geechee.com/TheFilm.html). It is important to point out that even though this film is a learning experience about the Gullah (or GeeChee) and the power of women, black women specifically, it would be a mistake to consider this film a documentary.  bell hooks says in her interview, “[Daughters] brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe,” and Julie Dash continues in the same interview, “[Daughters] is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.”

Throughout the story I found myself as a part of the family dynamic, and what a dynamic it was. Everyone was a part of the day. No one was the background of anyone’s struggle, and the deep focus of the whole film made that clear. The deep focus and long shots also showed how this group of people was integrated into the nature surrounding them, so connected and in touch. I was able to be so overwhelmed and taken by the images and feeling of family mostly due to the structure of the story. Different from Hollywood’s linear narrative form, this film unraveled much like an oral recounting of a family’s history, through a series of vignettes. There is so much to this film, but these three aspects are what stood out and made me feel like a part of the story. Hollywood films want to glaze you over, they want to throw story in your face, and they want you to not notice the editing, the camerawork and just want you to be engrossed in the film. This is entertainment and I watch it all the time, but rarely during this entertainment do I get something from the art, rarely do I connect. I’m starving for something on the screen. Much like post Blaxploitation, I’m starving for a real image of life, an account that can teach me something about different cultures, and an account that can make me feel something not related to the superficial. With Daughters, I get a taste of this even though the film is directed more towards a black woman and black community audience rather than a white woman audience.

After watching the film the first time, I just sat on my couch listening to the lingering music of the credits while reacquainting myself with my own surroundings. I felt so alone. I felt like I was missing something. Yes, in the story there was judgment between family members like there always is, there is struggle and pain, and questions, and disagreements, and different beliefs, but in the end they are all still a part of each other even on the day they say goodbye to their great great grandmother before they leave for the mainland. I had forgotten the power of blood, the power of roots, and this film made me realize how important tradition and family is, but what is most amazing is that it’s so rare for a film to send this message through a strong black woman context. Just as a little extra information, this film, Daughters of the Dust is the first feature length film to be directed by a black woman, Julie Dash, and that in itself is extraordinary.

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2 thoughts on “Black Independent Cinema: Daughters of the Dust and Family Tradition

  1. Thank you for this, Sam. I have been a bell hooks fan for many years, and her recommendation (and yours, of course) has moved this to the top of my queue!

  2. She is great. I’ve just recently learned about her and I can’t get enough. Yay! I’m glad you’re putting this at the top because all in all it is an important film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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