Daughters of the Dust sets itself apart from other films of its kind by its visual poetry. It holds a beauty that refuses to be contained within conventional narrative form and thereby allows the viewer to acquire a feeling that is never quite presented verbally. Julie Dash knows fluently the cinematic language she speaks through the film. Setting aside for a moment just what she says, the way in which she says it is uniquely lovely. It’s hard not to think of Antonioni, whose grammar of cinema clearly had an effect on Dash, somewhere along the line of his heirs. Conventional narrative form is generally prosaic; the Antonioni style, which Dash uses, is like a cross between free-form and classical poetry. It doesn’t rhyme, exactly. But there’s a structure to it and a kind of macro-montage effect that would have made Eisenstein proud.
Just what Dash is saying might be less impressive than her form and style. Daughters of the Dust is classified as a “nativist” film, offering the point-of-view of a “native” group of people. In this case, the point-of-view is mostly feminine, even if the film isn’t exactly “feminist.” Living on an island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century, a cultural/people group heretofore largely sheltered from Americanization begins the inevitable geographical shift to the “mainland.” These are a people whose ancestors were brought against their wills from Africa and who themselves have maintained a semblance of that heritage on their own island, mostly free from the effects of US culture. Dash anchors the culture in the single person of “Nana,” the tribe’s figurative and (somehow) literal grandmother (implying a kind of incestuous element). Family members who already moved to the mainland now return to convince the rest of the group to relocate with them. Nana, however, embodies the old school, the last remaining sign of what is past. She refuses to leave the land and insists to her children that they have their culture and history within them. For Nana, to abandon the island would be the greatest imaginable travesty.
Here is where Dash, or at least Nana, displays her naïveté. The nature of ethnicity or culture is fluid. Nana is herself a manifestation of two worlds given birth to its own distinct world: Africa and the post-slave trade settling on an island in the Americas. For her to think that she is purely African would be inaccurate, having never been to Africa. But neither is she a blank slate, simply starting over from scratch. Her children have arrived at the inevitable point of finishing their cultural journey from one hemisphere to the other. Living in such proximity to the US, it is unfeasible to think that the gargantuan cultural presence of the US would not someday invade the small island of its shores. Nana is understandably disheartened by the returning family members, whose embrace of Christianity and the US culture flies in the face of their more native brand of religion and culture. Because Dash positions Nana in a sentimental and tragic light, Nana’s innocent outlook cannot be completely excused. For a culture to survive in the modern world, it must adapt. As films are so apt to point out, children from families tied strongly to their cultures are prone to drift toward Western popular culture. Daughters of the Dust is set in the Teddy Roosevelt years, but the industrialized world already imposes its draw on smaller native worlds. See the other examples of Persepolis and Mississippi Masala as films that acknowledge the rupture that occurs when a geographical shift corresponds when a cultural shift. The rupture manifests itself first through children. In these latter two films, the parents were relatively willing to acknowledge their children’s need to branch out. In so doing, they subtly preserved more than a trace of the previous culture. The result in the end will be less a hybrid of the two cultures than a third, synthetic and dynamic culture, what Homi Bhabha has labeled the “in-between” culture.