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‘Daughters of the Dust’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1992


Julie Dash
Adisa Anderson;
Cheryl Lynn Bruce;
Cora Lee Day
Not rated

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"Daughters of the Dust" is an African American family heirloom, a gorgeously impressionistic history of the Gullah people set on the South Carolina Sea Islands at the turn of the century. In the hands of director Julie Dash and photographer Arthur Jafa, this nonlinear film becomes visual poetry, a wedding of imagery and rhythm that connects oral tradition with the music video. It is an astonishing, vivid portrait not only of a time and place, but of an era's spirit.

The story focuses primarily on the women of the extended Peazant family of luxuriant Ibo Landing, a black community descended from the slaves who worked the indigo, rice and cotton plantations before emancipation. Isolated from the mainland, the Peazants have preserved many of the traditions, beliefs and language of their West African ancestors. All that stands to be lost, however, as the Gullah clan prepares to migrate from this paradise to the industrialized North. Only the matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), an 88-year-old mystic, insists on remaining behind with the old souls and her "scraps of memories."

On a summer day in 1902, a farewell picnic is underway on the beach, where the Peazants in their Sunday best are gathered for a feast of shrimp gumbo, fresh clams, yellow corn and johnnycake. The young women, romantic in long white dresses, move as languidly as clouds while a photographer (Tommy Hicks) records them for posterity. Nana's daughter, Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), looks like a bride in her lacy veil, but she is in her family's eyes a "ruint" woman. A wet nurse and a prostitute, she has just returned from Cuba with her beautiful lover. She naturally finds herself in conflict with her cousin Viola (Cherly Lynn Bruce), a fundamentalist Christian who rejects Yellow Mary's morals along with Nana's spiritualism.

There is also conflict between Nana and her dour sister-in-law (Kaycee Moore), an outsider who considers the "Geechee" ways backward and dreams of assimilation. Meanwhile, Nana seeks solace from the ancestral spirits who have gathered for the birth of her great-granddaughter (Kai-Lynn Warren), whose mother, Eula (Alva Rogers), was raped by a landowner. It is the precocious unborn girl's job to convince her father (Adisa Anderson) that he, not the rapist, is truly her father. The spirit girl, who sometimes mysteriously shows up in the photographer's compositions, is also the movie's narrator, a guide who unites the Gullah past with the future that might be.

A multidimensional family drama spoken in the patois known as Gullah, "Daughters of the Dust" is not always easy to follow, nor does it reward viewers with neat resolutions. As Dash intended, her film enfolds us in its dark arms and ancient sensibilities.

"Daughters of the Dust," in the Gullah dialect with some subtitles, is not rated but is suitable for general audiences.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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