Wednesday, January 03, 2024


In preparation for the release of the new adaptation of THE COLOR PURPLE I decided to finally watch the critically acclaimed DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST by writer-director Julie Dash. This is a film that debuted at Sundance in 1991, but where other indie debutants like Richard Linklater went on to get many feature films financed Julie Dash disappeared from view.  If one laments the fact that the original THE COLOR PURPLE didn't win an Oscar, despite its eleven nominations, consider the further and ongoing racism of Hollywood that Julie Dash could create a film of such unique and beautiful vision as DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and never make a feature again.  Which is not to say that her presence has not been felt. Beyonce's Lemonade is just one of the examples of films that reference Dash's visual style and social concerns. And the new COLOR PURPLE apparently also references her now iconic visual style.

The movie takes place in the saltwater Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina in the early years of the twentieth century.  Their story is told by the wise old grandmother of the family, Nana Peazant, and by an as yet unborn daughter.  We learn that their isolation was a blessing, freeing them from large-scale plantation slavery and preserving their specific language, religion and customs.  Much of the film takes place in conversation amidst the beautiful sun-drenched sands of the island, with strong women shaping their history and future.

The story is not told in a straightforward linear fashion but we soon discover that this community is in its dying days, and the younger members of the family feel the draw of greater opportunity on the mainland.  That brings with it cultural contamination - from Christianity and Islam - but also the actuality of white violence.

Where THE COLOR PURPLE has a surfeit of plot, and is structured in a conventional manner, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is poetic and loose and enchanting. The former is anchored on Celie's house, to where characters return and retreat, and the ownership of which is a key plot point.  By contrast, the Gullah woman seem to be eternally outdoors and connected to the water and sand and trees.  This maybe speaks to the fact that the seawater Gullah have managed to retain their African heritage in a way that the mainland post-slavery society that Celie lives in has been thoroughly alienated from its proud heritage. In THE COLOR PURPLE, Nettie has to return to Africa to discover her culture, but even then arrives as an outsider, a missionary, with a patronising civilising influence. In the Gullah community, Africa survives and is proximate.

The glory of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is the time spent with these fascinating women, contrasting their differing attitudes toward spirituality and the choice of where to live.  Cinematographer Arthur Jafa creates stunningly beautiful beachscapes populated by people in gorgeous white dresses against trailing moss. It's no wonder these images have been so influential. The only thing that felt anachronistic and dissonant watching it now was composer John Barnes' synth heavy score.

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 113 minutes.

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