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Bechdel Test Canon: Daughters of the Dust

Daughters of the Dust DVD coverToday we encounter perhaps the most difficult entry of the series. While "important" and "palatable" are not always mutually exclusive descriptors, there's no denying the cultural significance of writer-director Julie Dash's hypnotic and elliptical 1991 debut feature Daughters of the Dust, which apparently was the first nationally released film by a black female director. In 2004, the Library of Congress' National Film Registry accepted it in its canon. Its distributor, Kino International, has a close relationship with Janus and thus is similar to the Criterion Collection in its commitment to film restoration and definitive DVD packaging. However, it's a slippery movie to review, not the least of which because this critic is a white woman with a shaky grasp on the folkloric traditions represented and referenced herein.

In theory, Daughters contains a straight-forward narrative. The extended Peazant family, led by grand-matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), are gathering together to get their picture taken. The film takes place in 1902, at a time with the technology used in photographer Mr. Snead's (Tommy Redmond Hicks) profession was still emergent. The film's setting is the Sea Islands, which form a chain along South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Though they were founded by indigenous tribes, Spain used many of them as colonial mission posts. After Georgia and Florida were settled, planters began importing African slaves to work the cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. As many originated from West Africa, they attempted to preserve their heritage and language systems. The cross-pollination resulted in the formation of the Gullah culture. However, much of the Peazant family is migrating to the mainland. Thus, this event represents a reunion and an attempt to wipe clean the traumatic origins and aftermath of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era.

The film is concerned with multiple generations of women within the family. They are paired together in surprising ways, with the main arc narrated by an unseen child (Kai-Lynn Warren) who won't be born until the following year. Nana is the eldest. She and most of the family have a strained relationship with Yellow Mary (Barbarao), a pariah in the Peazant family because of her white father and her residency in the United States. There is a gaggle of young women in that nascent period between late adolescence and early adulthood, including Eula (Alva Rogers). These ladies interact with one another through teaching customs, retelling stories, learning dances, playing games, and sharing silences.

Nana with her kin

The film is remarkably lyrical and abstract about these proceedings. Dash, a New Yorker whose father is of Gullah descent, wanted to share experiences from her youth. These practices included preparing gumbo, eating meals with her family, or gluing okra to her forehead when her grandparents unspooled family lore. She specifically wanted to reflect on African American culture at time when Americans were about to face another turn of the century. She also wanted to foreground female experiences, which some apparently feared would make Daughters unmarketable. I think these detractors are lazy, and can't recognize the great care taken by Dash, cinematographer Arthur Jafa, score composer John Barnes, production designer Kerry Marshall, and costume designers Dana Campbell and Arline Burks Gant, among others.

Julie Dash

Though the crew beautifully exacts the medium's particular ability to transport viewers, the film's opacity can make it fairly inscrutable. While little appears to transpire in Daughters, it is teeming with dense cultural references, familial tensions, and a set of subtle but complex multiperspectival recollections that are introduced by one character and reshaped by others. As a result, family members' interconnections are even deeper than originally established. This bespeaks the evolution of West Africa's rich storytelling traditions as reinterpreted by the Gullah people. The deft employment of complicated, multivalent storytelling establishes the influence it had on Zora Neale Hurston's work, which is skillfully contextualized in Valerie Boyd's great biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. This dense interplay also recalls the West African tradition of polyrhythmic harp playing, which took Joanna Newsom much of her life to learn, to say nothing of its originators. It also contains a built-in critique against condescending white interlopers of European descent who exalt the primitive simplicity of the black person's way of life.

I would never make such a claim, but am still not sure what to make of the bewitching and esoteric Daughters. While I heartily advocate its place in this series, I'd appreciate an interpreter with a background in the Gullah cultural tradition to parse out what is seen and unsaid. It takes a sensitive set of eyes and ears that I'm not sure I possess. But that seems to be Daughters' entire point: You can't trust one person to report and interpret a series of events, no matter how beguilingly simple.

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