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, although she has made numerous shorts, TV movies and music videos, and written two books related to the film (a biographical making-of and a literary sequel). Daughters of the Dust has become a compromise-free cultural touchstone in the interim, a guiding light for aspiring African-American and female filmmakers and artists, liberally referenced in Beyonce’s long-form video Lemonade, and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2004. Narrated by an unborn child, the film tells the story of a Gullah family (descendants of slaves who lived in relative isolation on islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina) in 1902 as they prepare to move north, while the matriarch beseeches her family not to forget their way of life. The film has a flowing, lyrical structure that slowly envelops you, immersing you in a lost language, culture and time, and the images of African-American women in long, white dresses and starched collars playing on a lonely beach are worthy of their iconic status.