Thursday, 6 July 2017

In transit: "Daughters of the Dust"

Recent years have seen the rediscovery of two notable yet semi-obscured artefacts from the New Black Cinema movement that burst forth around the turn of the 1990s. Where Marlon Riggs' video essay Tongues Untied returned to light as a none-more-urgent bulletin from what was then the here and now, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust presents as a journey into the past - one that has been given a slingshot back into our present of well-appointed repertory cinemas and digital streaming platforms by none other than Beyoncé, who used the film as a moodboard for last year's visual album Lemonade. If it's become a touchstone for black artists over the past quarter-century, it's surely in part because the film is deeply engaged with issues of cultural independence, being an evocation of the Gullah people, those descendants of slaves who - in a little-noted sidebar of American history - landed and ended up living on islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. 

We join the Gullah in 1902, at the beginning of a new century, as they began to weigh up the pros and cons of crossing over to the mainland - and integration, of a sort. Very quickly, we sense Dash means to recount not one history, but many. Although the same faces recur, Daughters unfolds as a scattering of episodes, snapshots, anecdotes and handed-down wisdoms and wives' tales rather than a straightahead narrative. It's clear that there were tensions within these settlers: the holdouts looking down on those already tempted by the mainland's money - and expressing withering disdain at the idea of purchasing bread from a store - while those blessed with children, and who might therefore feel they have roots to set down, approach the crossing with a different perspective from those who don't. Yet when the Gullah sit down to eat or share their hopes and fears, they could be gathering at the other end of the century; Dash strengthens this continuum by splitting her voiceover between the wise elder Peazant (Cora Lee Day), more alert to her tribe's heritage than most, and her unborn grandchild (Kai-Lynn Warren), viewing these events in warm, fascinated retrospect. 

There's a danger, obviously, that this might sound - or, worse still, become - rather waftily poetic, yet you can't fail to spot that what Dash is recreating here is a make-or-break moment: one where a carefully tended way of life with its own long clung-to language, customs and belief systems, was about to be set aside, more than likely to die off. We know from American history that there would be many years of struggle ahead before the Peazants would have the freedom to congregate in such large numbers or run this carefree along a sandy shore; the pristine white outfits the party wear are destined to be stained with the sweat of toil and spotted with the blood of a thousand injustices. What the film represents, perhaps, is a return to innocence - and yet Dash knows that, for the sake of progress, her people had to leave this Eden behind them, painful as that leavetaking might have been.

Given the film's reputation as a quasi-holy relic - and the benediction bestowed upon it by Lady High Slay Queen Knowles herself - it might be considered heretical to mention that some scenes have retained the starchy air of community theatre, and that certain performances err on the wobbly (though not notably wobblier, to be fair, than others in the rough-edged indie scene of this period). All this matters less, however, than the singularly languorous, sundown atmosphere Dash and cinematographer Arthur Jafa drum up, the beguiling evocation of a time and a place that were already a long way away at the point of production, and which have receded only further in the years since. When the wind first stirs the trees, and the waves begin to break over these shores, we're right back alongside these characters: granted a few hours' respite in which to take stock whether we're making this crossing (in 1902), navigating growing racial tensions in L.A. (at the time of release) or processing news of yet another death in police custody (as this reissue lands with us). How far, and how little, we've come.

We know now that Dash wouldn't make the transition to the movie mainstream that, say, Spike Lee and John Singleton - her hell-for-leather, take-no-prisoners contemporaries in this movement - would. (Why, it's almost as though the film business is institutionally skewed against women, and black women most of all.) The film-poetry she composes may in fact align her closer to a director like Charles Burnett, whose mighty 70s masterwork Killer of Sheep was just starting to be rediscovered around this period - though Burnett had to transmogrify into David Gordon Green to get anywhere near a studio showcase. None of that sad legacy should diminish from the fact that, although relatively youthful at 25 years old, Daughters of the Dust has itself passed into history - as a road concealed, and thus barely taken - and its images, like the broken glass turned up by a beachcomber, emerge as all the more gleaming for having laid buried in the sand all these years.

Daughters of the Dust is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream on Netflix. 

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