25 years ago, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust broke ground as the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States. To celebrate this landmark achievement as well as the influential drama itself, Cohen Film Collection has brought Dash’s critically lauded debut back to theaters with a gorgeous 2K restoration.
Set in 1902 on the remote St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, Daughters of the Dust follows the trials and tribulations of the Peazant family, a Gullah clan who hold deeply to the traditions of their West African ancestors brought to this place as slaves generations ago. With the family planning a move to the mainland, far-flung relatives reunite, sparking rivalries and realizations. All the while, omniscient but empathetic narration laces through from the Unborn Child of a heartbroken husband and wife. The frolicking girl even appears, pondering what lies ahead of them and who they will choose to be.
I remember the first time I saw Daughters of the Dust. Sitting in a college course on women in film, I was astonished how this uncompromising and mesmerizing drama felt unique from anything I’d ever seen and yet somehow familiar. Dash’s blend of Gullah culture—its stories, sounds, songs and hairstyles—mixed with the conservative and crisp turn-of-the-century American wardrobe makes for a captivating cinematic experience, rich in atmosphere, and pulsing hard with spirit. Family conflict interwoven with explorations of legacy and told through the eyes of an undetermined descendant, it’s mind-bending and heart-warming. It’s brilliant and at times bizarre. It’s what you hope indie film will bring to cinema’s landscape, challenging its audiences while heaving us into awe.
Even if you’ve never seen Daughters of the Dust, it’s imagery of elegant black women draped in long white dresses, lounging in sprawling trees should be familiar, as Beyonce’s astonishing Lemonade pulled heavily from the film. The homage was a total surprise to Dash, who told Vanity Fair, “My phone blew up the night Lemonade came on and my Web site shut down … someone called me and said Daughters of the Dust is trending on Twitter. And I said, ‘No, it must be something else,’ and they said, ‘No, it’s trending!’ And I looked and it was, and it was so funny. It just tickled me to death.”
She went on to credit the multi-director visual album as a “masterpiece,” and credited Beyonce with inadvertently helping her film’s journey to restoration. “It was already in the works,” Dash explained. “But everything sped up at that point. The funniest thing was, I got a tweet from my daughter who said, ‘O.K., welcome to the Beyhive.’”
Inspired by her father’s own Gullah heritage and migration to New York, Dash wrote and directed a lyrical film that spotlighted African-American experience at the turn of the century, a goal few filmmakers have dared take on. “I really wanted to see an African-American historical drama that took me places that I had never been to before,” Dash recently told Rolling Stone, “just like I was taken places when I was watching foreign films or even some American epics. Films I was seeing at the time weren’t really made for African-Americans — they were made to explain our history to others…Usually, we’re subject to films that have us in them — but they’re explaining stuff to other people…We already know this information. We wanna see something that nourishes us.”
Despite the praise Daughters of the Dust and Dash received out of its Sundance debut, the visionary filmmaker was not embraced by Hollywood the way many other indie standouts are. The drama struggled to find a distributor, and then even when it proved an art house hit, packing theaters for months and months, Dash could not find an agent. She recounted to the New York Times, “One agency told me I had no future. Another company, a mini-major, said it was a fluke.” And in a way it was. For 25 years, Dash has pitched projects to studios again and again, only to be turned away. She works regularly helming TV movies, commercials, and documentaries for museums, but Daughters of the Dust, funded in part by PBS’ American Playhouse, remains her only feature film.
Hollywood, which has given chance after chance to white male directors who’ve made bombs has blatantly and persistently has ignored a black female director who made a seminal art house hit. “People say, ‘Well, don’t you have any ideas?’” Dash shared. “Of course I have ideas, of course I’ve optioned books, of course I’ve written new screenplays—I have a stack of them. But there’s a lack of access to these people and also the opportunity to go forward with something unless you have an angel at your side who helps to promote that.”
“I have pitched (a Daughters of the Dust sequel) to every major movie studio out there,” she told VF. “I got wonderful coverage from ICM years ago on the book (Daughters of the Dust: A Novel which is set 20 years after the first film), but I have not been able to get financing from it. I’ve not been able to penetrate that whole Hollywood financing thing. But who knows? I’m still optimistic. But yes, we tried very, very hard.”
Dash isn’t giving up on Daughters of the Dust 2. Perhaps the support of the Beyhive and its Queen Bey could be the angel this African-American artist needs at her side? At the very least, we should take a page from Angie’s Han’s call to action, and support the films that dare to be different from the Hollywood norm and speak for the marginalized.
Daughters of the Dust is now playing at Film Forum in NYC. Nationwide expansion is coming.