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Daughters of the Dust

Sony Pictures // Unrated // April 11, 2017
List Price: $17.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 3, 2017 | E-mail the Author
Shortly after the dawn of the 20th century, on the South Carolina island of Saint Helena, several generations of a single family, the Peazants, clash over the merits of migrating to the north, to live on the mainland. The women are Gullah, descendants of slaves, and in the view of some, such as matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), assimilation into a larger culture will mean the end of the Gullah traditions. Nana's grandson, Eli (Adisa Anderson), is reluctant to leave and conflicted over the rape of his wife, Eula (Alva Rogers), by a mainlander. Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has already moved and is now returning to Saint Helena as a devout Christian, and fights with Nana over differing forms of spirituality. Ironically, Viola arrives at almost the same time as Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), who works as a prostitute, a life choice which irks Haagar (Kaycee Moore), Nana's granddaughter-in-law. Meanwhile, the Unborn Child (Kay-Lynn Warren), Eula's child, watches over all of them.

Daughters of the Dust -- a movie a scant 25 years old -- has the distinction of being the first film released in theaters by a black, female director, Julie Dash. In some ways, the movie's story about the racial injustices of the past still lingering the present feel like a potent commentary on the film's own embarrassingly late-breaking achievement. In fact, Dash first conceived of the film back in the 1970s, but couldn't find anyone willing to finance the film until American Playhouse finally bankrolled the film at a mere $800,000 in 1988. Even then, Daughters' struggle was not over: the film would end up hard to find on home video, with its one and only DVD release coming out in 2000. Now, in the wake of Beyonce's Lemonade being heavily indebted to the film and the film's 25th anniversary, Cohen Media has given the movie a brand new restoration and even a theatrical re-release, culminating in a new Blu-ray and DVD.

Looking at Daughters, it's easy to see some of the connections between it and Beyonce's film. Although Beyonce's visual album is obviously more focused on a single story, the two films feel rooted in not just the presentation of a significant emotional and dramatic upheaval, but specifically the tumultuous journey of characters working through their issues in an attempt to come out the other side. At a glance, that may seem like a generic enough description to fit any film, but both Dash and the experience of Lemonade are about really getting the viewer to feel those emotional gears turning, to understand what drives each shift, and to lean into the sometimes contradictory and unpredictable nature of a person or various people processing. Both films are about basking in emotion, about acknowledging that absorbing those feelings and expressing them are part of the process of living.

There is also a similarity to the somewhat loose and impressionistic style the films take on. Dash avoids following much of a traditional narrative structure, even though the film progresses more or less chronologically. There is an impulsive nature to the way she shifts the film between its characters, a patient attitude toward her build toward bigger scenes, such as a beach confrontation where Eula really speaks her mind about the notion of clinging to the past. The film, shot on the real Saint Helena island, is filled with rich visuals that Dash often stops the film to bask in, glimpses of the daily life of the Peazant family. Children play or listen to readings from the Bible, Nana visits her husband's grave, Eli stews about the parentage of the baby and even gets into fights. One particularly potent visual is the masthead of a slave ship, still sticking out of the river. On one hand, the wreckage could be viewed as a victory; on the other, it could be a reminder of a past still sticking out over the surface.

More than anything, Dash ensures that Daughters of the Dust is indicative of a rich and unique culture. The dialogue is authentic Gullah, which includes unique turns of phrase and unique grammatical structure. In tandem with the pacing and filmmaking style, Daughters doesn't appear to make concessions to a mainstream audience, which makes its landmark opening seem even more remarkable. Dash notes in her commentary that this is a film that deals explicitly with slavery that never shows a chain or a whip scar. There is one seemingly white or distinctly light-skinned character in the movie, Trula (Trula Hoosier), Yellow Mary's lover from the mainland, and she never says a word. We get more from M. Cochise Anderson as St. Julien Lastchild, a Native American seeking refuge in the Gullah community. Visually, the film features rich cinematography by Arthur Jafa of the bayou landscapes of the island, and incredible period production design and art direction by Kerry James Marshall and Michael Kelly Williams. Although the film has a story, Daughters of the Dust is remarkable as a snapshot of a time and place, of a people and a lifestyle. The film is less a narrative than a moving painting that tries to capture the soul of a people.

The Blu-ray
The film gets Cohen Media's usual artwork treatment, featuring the new re-release theatrical poster inside the large block C frame. The two-disc Blu-ray release comes in an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-ray case (no holes), and there is a booklet inside the case featuring an essay by Jennifer DeClue, PhD., as well as a second leaflet advertising more Cohen releases.

The Video and Audio
Cohen's new 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer of Daughters is really exemplary. This is a warm, beautifully film-like transfer that captures details that have likely not been seen in the film since its' initial theatrical release over two decades ago. There are absolutely no signs of print damage, banding, artifacts, or anything to get in the way of the image, which has a nice healthy amount of film grain visible with no signs of untoward digital tinkering. Colors appear to be accurate throughout, and although there is some softness to the image, it is clearly the result of the original photography.

Sound is an LPCM 2.0 audio track that is in some ways more limited, given it's only stereo, but it sounds as good as one would want in rendering the dialogue as cleanly and clearly as possible, as well as offering a vibrant recreation of the film's score by John Barnes. English subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
There are only four extras, but each one is particularly substantial. First up is an audio commentary by writer/director/producer Julie Dash, moderated by Michelle Materre, who collaborated with Dash, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and Cohen Media in getting the film its anniversary polish. This is a lively track with Dunn's excitement driving some great question-and-answer conversations with Dash about the film's themes and the challenges of making the film.

The other three extras appear on the set's second disc. The first is an interview (1:12:08) with Dash and Dr. Stephanie Dunn, director of Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies at Morehouse College. This lengthy, wide-ranging chat touches upon Dash's influences, including a deeper dive on the research she did for the film (which is touched upon in the commentary). She also talks about filmmaking in general and her own journey as a filmmaker -- despite plenty of work in television, Daughters remains her only theatrical narrative feature. This is followed by a Q&A Session (24:51) from the Chicago International Film Festival, featuring Cheryl Bruce and moderated by actor Regina Taylor. Dash talks about her filmmaking inspirations in this featurette, and there is a bit more from the acting perspective from her co-panelist and the moderator. The disc rounds out with an interview (25:23) with cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who talks about his work on the film and coming to filmmaking from a different profession.

A re-release theatrical trailer for Daughters of the Dust is also included.

Daughters of the Dust is a special, unique film. It's a shame there aren't more like it, especially from Dash herself, who continues to make films without much help from the mainstream movie industry. Cohen Media's 25th Anniversary Blu-ray should easily live up to the standards the film's fans have set for an eventual high-def release. Highly recommended.

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