Daughters of the Dust [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (24th June 2017).
The Film

“Daughter of the Dust” (1991)

Taking place in 1902, the extended Peazant family living on Ibo Landing, St. Simons Island off the coast of South Carolina are contemplating on making an extravagant change in their lives - to leave the island and settle on the mainland. The Peazant family members are Gullah islanders - descendants of West African slaves brought to America and living isolated lives in the post-Civil War environment. While life on the mainland would bring better opportunities, not everyone is willing or wanting to leave.

Nana (played by Cora Lee Day) is the eldest member of the family whose roots are deeply connected to the island and the spirits of the ancestors. Passing down tradition, the importance of sacred ground, and spirituality are very important to her and she has no desire to move off the island.
Eli (played by Adisa Anderson) is a torn soul. His wife Eula (played by Alva Rogers) was recently raped by a white man on the mainland, to which she is now pregnant with a child and could either be his or not. He is tormented over the incident, and has doubts whether to stay or leave the island.
Viola (played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has lived in Philadelphia and has led a life as a good Christian, and is looking to help lead the family off the island. Mary (played by Barbara-O) also feels the same, but she led a very different life as a prostitute on the mainland.
Iona (played by Bahni Turpin) is a teenager in love, albeit secretly from her family members. She is in love with the Native American boy St. Julien (played by M. Cochise Anderson) and does not want to be apart from him.

To document the migration and the last of times the family has together at Ibo Landing, photographer Mr. Snead (played by Tommy Hicks) is brought to the island by Viola and Mary, there to take portraits with his still photo camera. As the family celebrates their time together by feasting on local foods, emotions start to pour out, causing uproar, arguments, and tension.

“Daughters of the Dust” is a film of African-American life, but of one particular culture that is underrepresented cinematically, and that is of the Gullah culture. Everything from traditions, food, religion, and even language differ from blacks from the mainland. As the islanders during the era of slavery worked on the island plantations far separated from most white owners, they were able to develop their own culture, close to their African roots rather than being stripped of their identities. Languages of their old native languages and English were combined to create a Creole dialect. Religions ranging from Christianity, Islam, and local ancestral traditions were also combined and well practiced. Director Julie Dash as a film student was intent on making a film about Gullah islanders, initially as a silent short film. Although a native of New York she had Gullah blood, with her ancestors migrating to the mainland in the early 20th century. Years of research on Gullah culture led to a draft, but from there it took a long time to find anyone even partially interested. As the original idea for the short proved difficult to find investors or interested parties, the script was expanded with dialogue and additional stories to make a feature length production. But even that led to a decade of disinterest from financiers. Not only was the subject matter considered non-commercial, but for investors to take a chance on a first time filmmaker - a black female director and writer in an unconventional film was a risk for many.

Financing was realized in 1988 when PBS’ American Playhouse granted $800,000 for the production. Small in range, but enough to secure actors, crew, and locations for the mostly outdoor on set shoot. None of the actors spoke Creole or with a Gullah accent, so the stars had to be coached in the distinct accent and grammar to create authenticity, though there are several minor moments during the film which their “true” accents are overheard - most likely during some adlibs. The dialogue made things difficult for both the actors and for viewers who may not be able to catch the language fully. But the biggest challenge of all was the unconventional narrative structure of the film. Told in a non-linear form with some characters not having a full interacting scene together, there are episodic moments between characters, flashbacks inserted, and the very unusual choice of having two narrators. One being the elderly Nana being the storyteller of long lie and the other being the unborn child of Eli and Eula giving the narration as a spirit like character. The narrators see the world in two different ways - one through the importance of place and tradition while the other is all about the openness of a new world. Being the voice of a child that only sees the world purely is wonderful by keeping the heavier tones more optimistic, but to add even more unconventional characterization, the unborn child sometimes physically makes an appearance (played by Kai-Lynn Warren), though unseen to others.

Reading between the characters there are many social issues planted like seeds rather than head on experiences. Viola being a Christian, Bilal (played by Umar Abdurrahman) being a Muslim are played without any sort of religious bashing or overemphasis, rather they are played like seeing every day traditions and not an argument. Mary’s life as a prostitute sheds some controversy, but in addition to that she brings home Trula (played by Trula Hoosier) who is hinted as being her lesbian partner. Interracial relationships in both positive and negative light are seen, with Iona being in love with a Native American while Eula being raped by a white man - one of love and one of hate, both causing rifts within the family. While these points are mostly subplots that do not much affect the main story of the family’s decision to move or not, they give a richer spectrum to each of the characters.

For African-Americans, there never was a place called home in the new world compared to the whites or the Native Americans. Whites took land and made it their own. Natives still had a spiritual connection to their original land and even if taken by the oncoming Europeans had pride in their connection to place. Blacks on the other hand were sold as property, stripped of their identity, and placed in the new world as slaves. Once the southern slaves were freed, most had nowhere to go. The Gullah islanders were a rare group that did have a place to call home, and that is how it was from the days of slavery and post war. For them to suddenly leave voluntarily the place their ancestors created as a new home was a devastating and hard choice, as seen by the powerful arguments placed by Nana.

“Daughters of the Dust” is a seemingly simple story on page but a deeper and richer experience altogether. The sense of community, family, and culture are fully realized. The elders teaching the kids words in Creole, traditions passed down from generation to generation, the mouth watering cooking and feasting scenes, and the sense of place and time, with the outdoor locations alongside the Atlantic Ocean and the very specific costume designs. The film was lensed by Dash’s then husband Arthur Jafa, who captured the beautiful images through many tests of varying film stocks, landing on Agfa film, which could fully capture black skin tones with greater detail. It is a slightly slow paced film putting emphasis on the locations and Jafa’s lensing tells the story through the images exceptionally.

Shooting completed in early 1990 and nearly a year of post production work followed, with the film first being screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1991. Jafa’s cinematography won an award and the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, which led to arthouse distributor Kino International to theatrically distribute the film. The film opened theatrically in the United States in January of 1992 with extremely high acclaim from critics. The film never had a wide release, with only 13 prints struck for the US market, and passed around from varying major cities throughout the year. The film made $1.6 million theatrically in 1992, doubling its initial budget. In addition to being one of the most lauded films of the year, it also was a landmark film - being the first film directed by an African-American female to have national distribution. It is very strange to think that it was only in 1992 that such a landmark happened which shows how male-dominated the industry is behind the scenes.

Prior to “Daughters of the Dust”, black films were dominated by inner city stories but a new cultural identity emerged. Films such as “Eve’s Bayou”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “Moonlight”, and Beyonce’s “Lemonade” owed very heavily to the tone and the cultural representation showcased in “Daughters of the Dust” and that is what cinema is all about - showcasing worlds and being immersed. More than 25 years later, Julie Dash’s feature debut continues to amaze.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can only be played back on region B or region free Blu-ray players

Video

The BFI presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For the 25th anniversary in 2016 the film was restored by Cohen Media Group in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, from the original internegative. The film was scanned in 2K, digitally restored, and supervised by cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Scratches, wobble, and other defects were corrected, colors were restored to their original beauty, and film grain was left alone to create a nearly pristine film image. Colors look wonderful with the brown and green hues of the natural area looking great with a tone of indigo to accent certain scenes. It is not perfect as there are some color fluctuations in certain scenes and some minor damage can be seen if looked at very closely. The film starts with the Cohen Media logo suggesting this is an identical transfer to that of the Cohen Media Blu-ray released in the United States earlier this year. An excellent restoration and transfer for the 25th anniversary.

The film’s runtime is 112:18.

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
The original mono track is presented in single channel lossless audio. It’s not the liveliest soundtrack but the music created is quite memorable, using many traditional African instruments and also some modern rhythms mixed in. Music and dialogue together are well balanced. The dialogue is always clear without distortion or dropouts, sounding great in both location audio and the narration segments. Note that there are certain portions of the film in Creole and French.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font and there are burned-in English subtitles for certain portions in Creole and French. Though note not all the non-English portions are subtitled. There are many times that Creole or slang words are used within the English segments and catching every word may be difficult even for native English speakers. Keeping many portions unsubbed was the director’s choice to give a sense of the environment and language rather than having everything explained.

Extras

“Daughters of the Dust” is a dual format Blu-ray+DVD release. The Blu-ray offers the film and the extras while the DVD has the same content but in standard definition PAL.

Audio Commentary with Director Julie Dash and Michelle Materre
Michelle Materre, Professor of Media Studies and Film at The New School moderates this newly recorded audio commentary with director/writer Julie Dash reminiscing about the film. A variety of topics are discussed, including the genesis of the project, how the music and characters were based, filming details, and even details on Dash’s work following the critical success of the film.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Interview with Julie Dash and Dr. Stephane Dunn, Director of Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies at Morehouse College (72:10)
Dr. Stephane Dunn and Julie Dash have a one-on-one sit for a lengthy conversation on the film and while many of the topics were covered in the commentary there are some other surprising details given, such as the reason for having two narrators, shooting on 5 different islands for the 23 day shoot, the film testing, and the importance of colors throughout. The audio on this extra is a little frustrating. When Dunn speaks, the audio suddenly only comes from the left speaker, with Dash’s audio coming from both the stereo speakers. This is distracting but later Dunn can be heard on both left and right speakers making the audio very inconsistent.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Q&A with Director Julie Dash and Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the Chicago International Film Festival, Moderated by Actress Regina Taylor (24:53)
This Q&A moderated by award winning actress Regina Taylor following a screening of the film for the 25th anniversary in 2016, Cheryl Lynn Bruce talks about being cast, being recognized, and some of the difficulties making the film while Dash talks about her connection to Gullah culture and the significance of nature and spirituality, and more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Interview with Cinematographer Arthur Jafa (51:23)
In this exclusive interview conducted at the BFI Southbank on November 5th 2016, cinematographer and former husband of the director talks about his start in film, how he met Dash through filmmaker Charles Burnett, the technical aspects of shooting the film, reflecting on the film 25 years later, and much more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

2016 Re-Release Trailer (1:32)
This is the 25th anniversary reissue trailer. It is also embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

DVD Copy
The film and its extras are presented in standard definition PAL on a region 2 DVD.

Booklet
Also included is a 28 page booklet, featuring essays, credits, photos, and acknowledgements. The first essay is simply titled “Daughters of the Dust” by Jennifer DeClue, assistant professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College, giving a 25 year retrospective analysis of the film. Next is a text interview with Julie Dash conducted by the BFI’s Gaylene Gould, conducted in 2017 and published in the most recent June 2017 issue of Sight and Sound. “Retelling History” by curator/writer/researcher Karen Alexander is a look at the importance of Dash’s work and its place in cinema.



The film has also been released on Blu-ray in the United States by Cohen Media, and includes most of the same extras. The only difference being the Jafa interview, in which the Cohen Media release has a differing shorter 25 minute interview with the cinematographer. While the extras are lengthy and full of information, there are many curiously missing extras from this 25th anniversary release.

The Kino Video DVD release from 2000 had the following extras:
- Audio commentary by Julie Dash (solo)
- "Touching Our Own Spirit: The Making of Daughters of the Dust" documentary with behind the scenes footage
- footage from the preliminary version of the film
- isolated music score
- excerpt of “The Blood of Jesus” 1941 film
- an interview with historian Robert Farris Thompson
- deleted scenes
- original theatrical trailer

All these important extras have been curiously left off the new Blu-ray releases, so people who have the original DVD edition should hold on to it for the bonus materials. (In addition our site does not have full specs for the original Kino Video DVD edition, so if a reader does have the disc, please let us know the specs and the runtimes!)

Overall

“Daughters of the Dust” is a landmark film that was unlike any other in its first release - a look at a culture seldom seem on screen told in a dreamlike non-linear fashion. Also a landmark for being the first nationally distributed film by an African-American female filmmaker, the film was an unexpected minor hit both critically and culturally, spanning many influenced works for the future. The BFI’s release of the 25th anniversary restored edition presents the film with excellent audio and video with lengthy extras, though sadly none of the original DVD extras could be secured. The set still comes highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A- Extras: B+ Overall: A-

 


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