Daughters of the Dust 12/02/16 3:11
The film is radically impressionistic—we witness events as if through the haze of memory, with enigmatic encounters and conversations taking place in an atmosphere of languid contemplation. In the beginning, some people arrive on the island in a small boat. Two of them are former residents: Viola, who has converted from the old African religion to Christianity, and "Yellow Mary" who is returning from Cuba with a female lover and is regarded with suspicion by the community as a dangerous, sexually loose woman. Three generations of women on the island are represented by the matriarch Nana who believes in the traditional ways, the stern and resentful Aunt Haagar, and Nana's granddaughter Eula who is pregnant, and her husband is not the father. There are lots of other characters too, including Haagar's daughter Iona, who is in love with a Cherokee man.
This society is distinctly matriarchal, and the women—as the title indicates—are the film's focus. Viola has come to urge the family to leave the island and seek a better life up north. Nana insists on staying and living the traditional way. This subdued conflict, which only occasionally flares up into argument, is the background for a series of very casual interactions and musings that at times seem almost dreamlike. At the center of things is Yellow Mary, who glides defiantly and with blissful indifference past the disapproving eyes of the island residents, with the conflicted and bewildered Eulah seemingly the only one attracted to her independence. The film's narrator, one gradually realizes, is Eulah's unborn child, relating events that she was told about years later.
Dash's eccentric style is wholly deliberate. The idea is to let the characters and events impress themselves subliminally rather than through the usual linear channels. The approach gradually grows on you—the strangeness of this hermetic island culture soaks itself into one's mind like a mood or a fragment of an old melody. In the end, some people leave and some stay, and the viewer has experienced a different place, and a different way of thinking.
Julie Dash is a pioneer who forged a path for independent filmmakers after her to follow their visions. In 2004, the Library of Congress chose her film to be preserved as an historically significant work. Twenty-one years after it was made, Daughters of the Dust continues to challenge and expand audience awareness. It's available on DVD.