A stormy day, but I was not about to miss seeing Daughters of the Dust (1992) and hearing Julie Dash, the writer, director and filmmaker speak, and thanks to my friend, Alem all this was possible.
I had not paused to think it was over 25 years ago when I first saw the film in Oakland, and loved it. I still remember that first viewing, being swept away by this original narrative that did not present African Americans as poverty trapped victims who needed to be rescued by benevolent whites. There are no such white folks in this film, and African Americans are able to speak and direct their own lives.
The Gullah people remind me of the Maroons in Jamaica, so much so that after seeing this film, I wanted to, and many years later, did in fact get to visit one Gullah community in South Carolina and meet some of these people.
I was flooded with these memories as I sat in the theatre waiting to see if this film could do it again. Well I was not prepared for Standing at the Scratch Line, Dash’s most resent short documentary on migration, with a satchel as the main character. I love Dash’s sensibilities and this documentary is so clever yet simple, and poignant and beautiful. It is a meditation, a song, a dance, a homage, a surprised all wrapped in one elegant package in film. Seeing it made me more certain than ever that I will direct a movie before my demise.
And yes, Daughters of the Dust did it again, and I suspect if I were to see it ten more times it would do it again, every time. Daughters of the Dust is the story, but it is more than the story. It is the Peazant people on St Helena Island, and their lineage and intersecting stories, and their defiant beauty. When I first saw the movie, I remember thinking that the director must love her some black folks, especially black women in our natural beauty, not fired and dyed and laid to the side with so much make-up our skin cannot breathe and shine through. In Daughters of the Dust our beauty is on parade and we are so-so fine.
When a member of the audience, during the Q&A, asked Dash if she thought about having subtitles as the dialect was hard to understand, her response was right on point. Paraphrasing, but in a nutshell she said, train your ear to listen to how we speak in the same way you listen to Irish or other accents that are equally unfamiliar and difficult to understand. In other words, respect how we speak and listen keenly, and for that reason, except for a few subtitles in the beginning, Dash sees no reason to do more. Also, she mentioned that a study was done and there are over 20, 000 words or more used in mainstream American that have their roots in West African languages and lexicon.
25 years ago when I first saw this film, this was a common compliant –not being able to understand what they were saying—by both African-Americans as well as whites. However, I understood what was being said and attributed that to my Caribbean heritage and hearing similarities in our nation language.
Daughters of the Dust is lush, and full of relevant cultural material, and everyone should see it. I am glad the Mill Valley Film Festival decided to honor Dash and her movie, which believe it or not was “the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States in 1992. In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.”