When director Julie Dash created the groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust (1991), a multigenerational tale of black women from the Gullah sea islands struggling to hold on to their culture, little did she know that 25 years later her work would be held up on the world stage thanks to one of the music industry’s most influential artists: Beyoncé.
The singer’s breathtakingly lush visual album, Lemonade (2016), tackled issues of black womanhood, southern traditions, race and female rage. Although Lemonade was the artist’s second visual album, it stands out as the first time the artist seems to have created music to soundtrack a standalone film. Given the subject matter and the detail paid to the cinematography, Dash’s film provided an obvious touchstone to inspire Beyoncé’s vision.
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Both Lemonade and Daughters of the Dust are odes to the American south, the land enslaved Africans had to call home. Daughters of the Dust was filmed on the South Carolina coast, in the Gullah community, whereas Lemonade recreates many of Daughters of the Dust’s lush landscapes in Louisiana. The use of playful images of black women climbing trees and, specifically in Daughters of the Dust, the use of the trees’ seclusion as a confessional space show the importance of nature to these black women’s lives.
The women of Daughters of the Dust swim, confess and play along the long island beaches, whereas Beyoncé dives into a flooded bedroom, confronting her hidden demons and worries. Water can be seen as the route to self-awakening; in Lemonade Beyoncé and other women gather in the water, evoking a rebirthing ritual. In Daughters of the Dust the only way to reach the island is via water. Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) takes this journey and finally discovers that she can’t let go of her heritage, so she decides to stay.
Another small, but nevertheless interesting, water connection is seen in Daughters of the Dust when Muslim elder Bilal Muhammad (Umar Abdurrahman) tells the other men about stories he heard when he was a child, about slaves escaping the ships by walking on water. Looking at the men around him, he says with disillusionment that it was only a myth. In Lemonade, the women create a formation on the coast, making it look like they’re gliding across the water. Perhaps Beyoncé is suggesting that myth and reality are closer than we may think.
Most explicitly of all, both films showcase rare glimpses of black womanhood and black women’s relationships with one another when men or white people aren’t around. Black women drive the entire storyline in Daughters of the Dust, with male members of the village dropping in occasionally to add to the narrative. Both films are celebrations of the diversity of black womanhood. This is shown through the wide array of traditional black hairstyles on show, and the true reflection of the variety of skin tones that exist among black people. The clean, white, period costuming of Daughters of the Dust was also an influence on the costumes for Lemonade, which were modernised to create a high-fashion revisioning of Dash’s film.
Food is used throughout both films by black women to connect and embrace one another. It was feminist scholar Audre Lorde who pointed out that the main difference between white and black women’s gatherings was the food on offer, suggesting that black women had more tempting offerings that fully satisfied your hunger. Sisters of the Yam, bell hooks’ guide to black women’s self-recovery, was named so because hooks noted that the one item that connected black women in every continent was yam. The preparation of food in both stories feels more like a ritual – one specific to black women.
Depictions of motherhood run through both films. In Daughters of the Dust, Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), who was raped and is now pregnant, is tortured with the knowledge that the child may not be her husband’s. Her unborn child narrates the story and is even shown as a small child before her birth, guiding and consoling her family. The sorrow of motherhood is also seen in Lemonade as the mothers of black men who died at the hands of the police silently hold images of their children.
Myth and spirituality
The clash between the old world and the new in Daughters of the Dust is most strikingly seen in approaches to spirituality. Matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) struggles to make her family respect and understand the African and Caribbean spiritual rituals she practices, which include a glass bottle tree that she keeps to remember those who have passed and a floating wooden sculpture to protect the villagers.
While a few of the family stay true to the old ways, many are lured by the mainland’s religion: Christianity. It’s despairing to realise that the migrants of the Gullah islands did not find the joy and riches on the mainland that they expected. It is also sad to see cultures that were passed down through generations being so quickly abandoned.
Lemonade fully embraces a host of old traditions from various cultures. Beyoncé appears as the goddess Orisha in one scene, and as a Native American girl in a Mardi Gras outfit performing a table blessing ritual in another. Her cultural reference points are messy, but they represent the vision of many young people of colour today who are clinging with all their strength to save what they can from their cultural traditions.