The ascension of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust to recognition as one of the greatest films of all time hardly comes as a surprise to Black women moviegoers, who championed the film from its earliest screenings and fiercely defended it against wilful misunderstandings in the decades that followed. Black women, in whose image the 1991 feature was directly created, saw then what is now widely understood: Dash’s visionary visual marriage between Afrocentric aesthetics and the rich emotional depth of Black womanhood is a cinematic triumph.
Daughters rapidly engulfs you with the lush, matriarchal world of the Peazant family, residing in South Carolina’s Sea Islands at the turn of the 20th century. The fundamental crisis takes shape as the women-centred family is split between migrating north or staying in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Dash’s multilayered narrative unfolds by allowing the youngest member of the clan, an unborn child, and the eldest members, the ancestors, to weigh in, in an energetic display of shared narrative.
Through a union of African diasporic storytelling techniques, visually arresting imagery (assisted by cinematographer and co-producer Arthur Jafa) and dynamic character scope, Daughters offers a deep reading of how ancestry and the depth of Black souls are fractured between a longing for modernity and tending to their roots. As the women try to work towards a collective solution and honour their individual paths, Dash invites us through their interiority. By doing so, we are granted access to the cinematic language of Black women defining themselves for themselves.
The film, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, remains an enduring symphony that sings, reframes and reignites a Black girl’s song.
By refusing a Eurocentric understanding of African-American identity, Dash’s seminal work challenges us all to believe in cinema’s creation – and viewing – as an act of communal healing. With this cinematic heirloom leading the way, may we all continue to.
Maya S. Cade