Inviting expanses of beach stretch seemingly forever. Gentle waves cast foam on the shore in patterns that shift as hypnotically as those in a kaleidoscope. The sky is brilliant blue, the sun round and bright except when it has set and is rising again in a glorious burst of oranges and yellows.
Gathered on the island are dozens of members of a family descended from enslaved Africans. The dark browns of their skin stand out against the white sand and the even whiter dresses and suits they wear. Some of them have hands stained with indigo from the dye they make for their livelihoods.
Everything in Daughters of the Dust (1991, written and directed by Julie Dash) proceeds slowly. The breezes blow gently and the people move with deliberate grace. In the few moments when characters run, they do so in slow motion that makes their movements dreamlike.
By itself, Arthur Jafa's enchanting color cinematography would be a compelling reason to see Daughters of the Dust. The evocative film offers many more.
Its characters are preparing to leave their ancestral homeland on islands off the coast of Georgia for what they hope will be richer lives on the U.S. mainland. It is 1902, barely two generations after the nation's bloodiest battles brought their forebears freedom from slavery. Now the family savors their liberty as they contemplate some of its costs. Life off the beautiful island will be fulfilling, but they realize that in some ways it will likely be less satisfying.
Members of the Peazant family hear the tempting call of a promising future in modern cities far from their island home. They also hear the echoes of the voices of their ancestors. They try to heed the wisdom in their heritage while heeding the summons of progress. Their efforts to keep one from drowning out the other give Daughters of the Dust riveting tension.
The characters speak Gullah, a mix of English and Creole. Some viewers might have trouble making out some of the words (I did), but the meanings are always clear even if a bit is lost here or there.
Early in the movie, one woman who already lives in Georgia returns to help her family make their move. She says to two of her relatives about the rest of their family, "I see this day as their first steps towards progress, an engraved invitation to culture, education and wealth on the mainland." The two giggle at her, perhaps because they know they already have culture, education and a kind of wealth. Or perhaps they giggle because they agree that the move will finally provide these things for them. The woman who has spoken evidently takes offense at their laughter and her face registers fleeting disdain for family to whom she feels superior.
There are other tensions as well. A member of the family suspects that he is not the father of the child his wife carries. As he struggles to keep together his nuclear family, his grandmother urges him to unite their extended one as well. Several of his kin plan to live near each other on the mainland, but one plans to make her new life in Nova Scotia because she likes the sound of it.
The challenges the family faces lead to some surprises as they take their places on the boat that will carry them from the homes they have known to new ones they will know. Some people who seem certain to go choose instead to remain. Others who appeared ready to leave decide not to.
It is here that Dash seems briefly to lose command of her intricate narrative. A character who has been movingly eloquent in favor of leaving the island decides not to, and she makes her decision off-screen. We've heard so much of her earlier thinking that it is jarring not to hear at least a bit of her new reasoning. It is a minor flaw in a movie that is otherwise masterful.
Or it may not be a flaw at all. The heart harbors mysteries. Perhaps Dash intends this fleeting bit of ambiguity to signal that we cannot always know her characters' motives because sometimes they cannot know for themselves what drives them.
What drives the movie is more clear: nature's varied beauties and a family's complex longings.
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