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The Grizzly Gazette

The Grizzly Gazette

The Grizzly Gazette

Why Critics Didn’t Get “Daughters of the Dust”

Tw: Mention of  rape

“Daughters of the Dust,” is a 1991 film that was written, directed, and produced by Juile Dash. Having a running time of 112 minutes, the film holds a historical importance and is a turning point in the movie industry due to it being the first theatrical released movie across the United States to be directed by a black woman. 

Set in 1902 on the island of Saint Helena Island, off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, the film captures three generations of women in the Peazant family, who are a part of the Gullah/Geeche community, as they prepare to make the transition into migrating off the island and settling in the Northeast and Canada.  

The film is highly original and captures the transitional moment in African American communities across the south during the early twentieth century, as many left the Southeast and settled in the north and west for better job opportunities and in hopes of being free of discrimination and racial violence. 

The film does a remarkable job of exploring African American women and their connections with their family, sexuality, and religion, and the impacts of slavery while navigating post Emancipation south. 

When the film hit theater screens in the winter of 1991, it garnered a variety of reactions and interpretations. An overwhelming number of critics labeled Dash’s film as an “attempt to be artsy,” and others even claimed the film wasn’t an “authentic” period piece to the African American experience in the twentieth century. 

Dash produced a film that rejects the white gaze, a gaze that usually exploits and dehumanizes black stories, and instead created a film that puts an humane emphasis on black women’s emotions while having these same characters encompass a variety of opinions and feelings,

Dash also replaces the common graphic racialized violence that has been inflicted by Black Americans through cinema and film, with images of withered hands of formerly enslaved black people that are tainted with blue indigo. These tainted blue hands reflect the cultivation and the mass enslaved labor done by enslaved black people of Saint Helena Island in the process of creating indigo, a plant that fueled the economy of the south.  

This decision created a multitude of white critics to dismiss Dash’s work and create biased reviews and interpretations of the film storytelling. 

As Dash would later tell interviews years after the film’s release, she’d express how she created the film with a specific target audience intended being African Americans who grew up in the rural south and were surrounded with a multitude of Afro-diasporic religions and beliefs. 

When questioned on avoiding cliches of the black experience in the rural south post Emancipation  and how it affected the process of creating and developing themes and stories of the film, Dash said to the New York Times, “ I wanted to capture profound moments that connect us to the history of the diaspora — without explaining, without going all National Geographic.”

One thing that makes the film very distinguished and unique, is its storytelling that doesn’t explain cultural elements of black culture and black history in America to mainstream white audiences. 

To black American audiences watching the film, they are able to watch the diversity within their culture without the input of white perspectives and a need to explain certain aspects of black culture to white audiences that for the most part of history has been untold and undocumented by historians. 

The film is a combination of oral memories and flashbacks, along with a  series of conversations done by the Peazant women. The women reveal the mythical landing of their ancestors on the island,  but also the current family members dealing with the suffering that many of the women face and the emotional impact of slavery. 

Nana Peazant, the matriarch of the Peazant family, reveals how her mother was sold away from her as a little girl, which deeply affects her views on the family leaving in which she argues throughout the film that family is forgetting the paths that their ancestors have laid for them. 

Nana Peazant’s complex feelings surrounding the younger generations’ migration North, causes her to explain how the island that their family has inhabited for generations, is more than just a piece of land and property, but holds spiritual and emotional importance that will forever bind the family together in the past and present. 

These feelings reflect the complexity that many Black Americans faced during the Great Migration of the twentieth century. The option of leaving behind your culture, family, and the emotional scars of slavery in hopes of inhabiting a new region of America for a promised brighter future.   

While the film holds a multitude of themes such as the varying religions amongst the Black communities, the culture of rape of black women done by white men, and complex feelings inhabited by black Americans born after Emancipation, the film is a masterpiece of exploring African American culture and spotlights varying emotions, ideas, and perspectives that have shaped generations of black Americans, past and present. 

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