The Mythopoetic Beauty Of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST

On the unique beauty and influence of Julie Dash’s masterpiece.

Get Out hits theaters this week (buy your tickets here), and we are celebrating with a week of articles inspired by the film.

A long time ago, on a Georgian shore, African men and women were unloaded from a slave ship. Amongst the captives were members of the Ibo tribe. As some of the Ibo were brought ashore, they stopped to observe the land around them. They saw themselves wringing poisonous, steaming-hot indigo dye from wet fabric, scraping indigo paste from vats and cutting it into bricks. They watched the fracturing of their children’s consciousness from the history and knowledge of their tribe. So the Ibo, after bearing witness to their future in the United States, turned around and walked onto the water. And they kept walking, past the ship, all the way back to Africa.

Actually, they drowned. That group of Ibo captives, men, women, and children, bound together by chains, walked straight into the water and stayed there until they drowned. That decision of will resonated so strongly that the enslaved Gullah tribes living on inlets and islands across the coast of Georgia told the story to their children, and insisted that they lived on the historic Ibo Landing.

Stories like The Myth of Ibo Landing gave emotional strength to the slaves that lived on. The myth both encapsulates and expresses the strength of will and resilience of enslaved Africans in the South. The story is one of many seeds that can be traced to the African-American counter-cultures that would develop within the confines of slavery and, centuries later, in opposition to institutionalized misperceptions of African-Americans.

Myths give light to culture. Passed from generation to generation, they preserve a behavioral and traditional background to even the bleak history of enslaved African-Americans. These cultural histories help develop the unique perspectives of individual artists, whose ability to evoke the emotional influence of their cultures infuses their artistic works with a sense of poetry.

Andrei Tarkovsky considered the value of poeticism in art as well as specifically in cinema in his book Sculpting in Time, “In my view poetic reasoning is closer to the laws by which thought develops, and thus to life itself…It possesses an inner power which is concentrated within the image and comes across to the audience in the form of feelings, inducing tension in direct response to the author's narrative logic.” There is a general sense of aversion when it comes to poetry and its emotionality, especially within the confines of narrative cinema. As opposed to the sequential linking of dramatic events, poeticism embraces emotional expression and subjectivity within a narrative. Poetry captures a direct affective reality without accompanying explanation. In writing, poetry uses words, symbols that represent these affects with precise, specific language. But cinema’s unique combination of images as represented in time, sound, both diegetic and soundtrack, along with writing and editing, can capture and evoke not only events and actions but also their emotional and psychological impressions in a way that is arguably more effective than any art form preceding it. So when artists like Julie Dash draw from the mythic history of their cultures that vary from the mainstream, they express an actual reality, which adds to the historical detail and gives life to the emotions and affective perceptions of people and their unique backgrounds.

Daughters of the Dust takes place during a Spring day in 1902. The Peazant family, a Gullah tribe and descendants of the Ibo, are excited by the prospective Georgia. The Peazants have decided to start their lives anew on the mainland. They spend their last day before traveling together on their island, celebrating the openness of the future.

The Peazant family’s migration is a source of worry for the family’s matriarchal figure, Nana Peazant, who has elected to stay behind on the island she has lived her whole life. Nana is a woman whose only knowledge of her own mother is the braided charm she left her before she was sold to another plantation. Nana saves memories inside of jars. She fashions trees with colorful glass bottles, each addition a remembrance of a dead family member. Nana places sacred value in the charms and traditions as connections to her family and the remnants of her African culture. She is as conscious of her family’s history of slavery as she is of their resilience and potential for a brighter future. But Nana is worried that her family will try to separate themselves from their history of slavery and, by extension, their history as a family. She wants to be assured that her family will embrace their tradition and history even after they move onto the mainland.

Nana calls on her grandson, Eli, to encourage the family to value their tradition. But Eli’s enthusiasm for the migration is psychologically hampered by the sexual assault of his wife, Eula, by a white man. Eli’s grief is magnified by both Eula’s refusal to tell Eli who assaulted her, as well as Eula’s pregnancy, which for Eli, shrouds the unborn child’s true paternal heritage in ambiguity. Eli is challenged to reevaluate his possessiveness, and to perceive Eula not just as his conceptual wife, but also as a woman coming to terms with her own emotional state.

Viola and Haagar, on the other hand, can’t wait to move the Peazant family to the mainland. Viola is a converted Baptist woman who moved to the mainland years before, tired of life on the islands. Haagar is a strong-willed but embittered mother who, after burying her husband and two of her children, wants a better future for her remaining children. Both women are understandably averse to their history of slavery, and see the mainland as a chance to separate themselves from that history and reform their family’s culture as educated, God-fearing folk. Both women are thus threatened by the return of Viola’s half-sister Yellow Mary and her new companion Trula. Yellow Mary’s relative wealth and independence, presumedly gained from prostitution, serve as evidence of the social disparities that affect African-Americans even on the mainland, and skew the romanticized perception Viola and Haagar have of the mainland’s ability to separate them from their historical roots of slavery and oppression.

Within all of this narrative conflict, Dash maneuvers between the film's central themes and characters, as well as a few others, with a deft and graceful touch. Eula and Eli’s unborn child, herself a character, travels back and forth through time, from the violet-tinted past of the Peazant family’s plantation work, to the men and women in the film’s present spending their final day on the island. As opposed to whips and chains, Dash uses the stain of indigo dye as a marker for slavery, showing the Peazant family working with bricks of the indigo paste, closing in on the hands of the older Peazant members, their hands permanently dyed blue.

In collaboration with DP Arthur Jafa, Dash captures a beautiful and mystical landscape. The women of the Peazant family, dressed in bright white, hair braided and curled, are backdropped by the dark greens and browns of the marshlands and forests, as well as the bright sands and rolling waves of the beach where they picnic. Mr. Snead, a photographer friend brought by Viola to capture her family’s last day on the island, enthusiastically poses the family within their surroundings. Most of the film is devoted to capturing the images of the Peazant women preparing fresh vegetables and seafood, dancing on the sand, appealing to their family, speaking their minds and hearts. But Dash also gives as much effort and preparation to smaller developments as well. She frames the tender caresses of a Newlywed Couple. She combines a beautifully written letter with naturalistic imagery to lend dramatic weight to the love story between Haagar’s daughter Iona and St. Julien Last Child, Ibo Landings last surviving Native American. She cuts to Bilal Muhammad, a Muslim on the island whose prompt adherence to the five Islamic prayers is mistaken by Viola as worship of the Sun and the Moon. She pans through the houses of the Peazant families as the children nap, their drawings visible on the house walls.

Daughters of the Dust is the manifestation of 10 years of research, but it is not a documentary. The indigo dye processed by slaves wasn’t actually strong enough to permanently dye their hands, but Dash wanted the dye to represent slavery without the harsh brutality of traditional slave imagery. Bilal Muhammad actually lived on the island during slavery, but adding his presence to the Peazants in 1902 lends his Islamic faith to flesh out the religious history of African-Americans within Dash’s narrative. Daughters of the Dust is not a factual account of a transition period for African-Americans, but a mystical and dramatic encapsulation of the various cultural, historical, and psychological elements that developed into African-American culture, centered by characters within a narrative setting whose emotional perspectives give poetic weight to the film.

2016 was a year that highlighted the influence of Daughters of the Dust. The film gained resurgence after imagery from the film was recreated in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, including the marsh and forests of the film’s setting, images of women in similar white dresses, as well as a recreation of the Myth of Ibo Landing, with Beyoncé and dancers, attached to each other by rope, walking on water.

But the influence that Daughters of the Dust has on Lemonade is also its poeticism; the way the film offers a uniquely black, feminine perspective on African-American history translates to Beyoncé’s dramatization of her personal emotional perspective of infidelity through imagery and music.

Similarly, the way Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight evokes the specific emotional perceptions of Chiron as he tries to actualize his homosexuality when faced with social expectations of masculinity, also takes influence from Daughters of the Dust. As does Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Issa Rae’s Insecure, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which all offer specific and unique black perspectives on American culture.

The strength of Daughters of the Dust’s legacy is the film’s encouragement of dramatizing emotionally specific perspectives onscreen without consideration for some general intermediary. To properly depict the emotional depth of its content, Daughters of the Dust is an unapologetically black, poetic film, and has led the way for other black visual artists to follow suit. These works call upon the audience to engage with concepts and characters who stem from minority cultures without any assumed sense of familiarity or relatability beyond a shared sense of human empathy. They are incredibly important to film and television, because when they reach an audience, the works tie into the wonderful communal sense that these are perspectives worth consideration, regardless of the audience’s initial familiarity.

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