Daughters of the Dust

Costume Drama Month is going okay, if a little dull last week. This week’s pick however feels like a dream. It’s more of a poem than a movie – and it’s deeply beautiful. It also inspired some of the imagery in Beyoncé‘s Lemonade so make of that what you will.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Languid look at the Gullah culture of the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia where African folk-ways were maintained well into the 20th Century and was one of the last bastions of these mores in America. Set in 1902.

Director: Julie Dash

Starring: Cora Lee Day • Alva Rogers • Barbarao

Who run the world? NANA

*Minor spoilers*

“I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.” ~ Nana Peazant

1902, St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast. Here we meet the Peazant family, whose ancestors were enslaved on the island centuries ago. The small community of islanders who still live there have developed their own language and culture – and the head of the family, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) practices African and Caribbean spiritual rituals like a boss. Their dialogue is in Gullah creole.

The island stories are for the most part narrated by the Unborn Child, the future spawn of Eli and Eula (Adisa Anderson and Alva Rogers), who Nana swears down is part of her too:

“We are two people in one body. The last of the old and the first of the new.”

Eula is about to give birth after being raped by a white man during a visit to the mainland, so relations between the couple are strained to the max. Eli laments to Nana that he no longer feels as though his wife belongs to him, while Nana reminds him that Eula is his wife and not something he can own. (Nana talks all the sense).

Both fear that the child about to come is not Eli’s – and Eula refuses to tell her husband who attacked her for fear of endangering his life. It’s desperately sad and later there’s a line uttered by the Unborn Child that reinforces this. Something like “I spent the rest of my life convincing my father that I was his”.

Don’t go chasing sandcastles

On this day however, there are other matters afoot. Some of the cousins have returned to the island from the mainland – to usher a number of the remaining family into their own travels North, where they will start their new lives.

Cousins Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and Yellow Mary (Barbarao) are polar opposites – V is a devout Christian (and don’t we flipping know it) – while Yellow Mary rocks up with her lover Trula (Trula Hoosier) and is cut from a more bohemian cloth. Mr Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a mainland photographer accompanies Viola on the trip to document the family’s travels.

There are many stories told during this time together, as the family catch up and gather around Nana, who will be staying behind. They are differing views and tales of woe – stories of triumph and success from the mainland. Eula gains strength from Yellow Mary, who reinforces her decision not to reveal the identity of her rapist.

“I see you!”

This beautiful poem culminates in the preparation of one final meal on the beach. Eula and Eli wax lyrical on the history and folklore of the slave uprising and those about to leave must make their final decisions – is it the right thing to leave now, or should they stay and maintain their traditional values and beliefs?

Daughters is breathtaking in the way it looks – the cinematography and costuming is pure perfection – and is rich with history. It examines truly brutal subject matter – from slavery to sexual assault – and has taught me something about a culture I did not know about and had never considered.

The Gullah are fascinating and fierce – and the lessons Nana teaches her daughters are mostly common sense. Her desperate insistence that they stay connected to their unbelievable history is so important and it wrangles at the heartstrings to imagine her left behind.

All performances are lovely but there’s a certain stiffness to some of the characters, though I’ll admit it actually suits them (for example, Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s bible-bashing Viola). Cora Lee Day is the stand-out as matriach Nana, while the wide-eyed beauty of Alva Rogers’ Eula works wonderfully. You want to rage against anyone who would ever hurt her, just like Eli does.

Although I’ve seen this pop up a few times on Netflix, I never would have watched it of my own volition so thank you Jill for the suggestion. I feel enriched just by listening to Nana’s lessons, even though they’re not meant for me.

“Eli, I’m trying to teach you how to touch your own spirit. I’m fighting for my life, Eli, and I’m fighting for yours. Look in my face! I’m trying to give you something to take north with you, along with all your great big dreams.” ~ Nana Peazant

Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na

⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What does Jill think of Daughters of the Dust? Would she leave the old ways behind in a heartbeat or stay on the island forever? Find out here.