By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
It took Julie Dash fifteen years to make Daughters of the Dust, and although it’s raw and occasionally impenetrable, it’s also the sort of breakthrough low-budget movie that should have been the stepping stone to a grand cinematic career.
Twenty-five years later and Daughters of the Dust is still Dash’s only theatrical feature. She made numerous shorts, TV movies and music videos, and wrote two books related to the film, but never shot an official followup feature. Daughters of the Dust became a compromise-free cultural touchstone in the interim, a guiding light for aspiring African-American and female filmmakers and artists. It was liberally referenced in Beyonce’s long-form video Lemonade and got selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2004.
Narrated by an unborn child and set in 1902, the film tells the story of a Gullah family, descendants of slaves who lived in relative isolation off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. As they prepare to move north, the matriarch beseeches her family not to forget their way of life. The film contains a flowing, lyrical structure that slowly envelops you, immersing you in a lost language, culture and time. Without a doubt, Dash’s images of African-American women in long, white dresses and starched collars playing on an otherwise empty beach prove worthy of their iconic status.