Reel Gems | Daughters of the Dust (1991)



In honor of Black History Month, we take a look back at significant, rarely-seen Black films that we think deserve to be re-introduced to contemporary audiences. Today’s film is the gorgeous 1991 indie, Daughters of the Dust.

Writer/director/producer Julie Dash’s beautiful drama tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family on St. Helena Island in 1902, as they prepare to migrate to the North.

Featuring an unusual narrative device, the film is told by the Unborn Child. Ancestors are part of the movie, as the Peazant family has lived on the island since their first people were brought there as slaves centuries before.

Dash conceived of the film in 1975, originally planning it to be a short without dialogue, a visual account of a Gullah family’s preparation to leave their Sea Island home to a new life in the North. It was inspired by her father’s family, who were Gullah and had migrated to New York. As she developed it over 10 years, she added layers of meaning and clarified her artistic vision. Together with Howard University cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, her cinematographer and co-producer, she put together a short film to use for marketing.

She was initially rejected by Hollywood executives, as this was her first full-length film. Dash said they thought it was “too different”. She thought their reaction was part of a systematic exclusion of black women from Hollywood. Persisting, Dash finally got financing from PBS’ American Showcase. Her work is the first feature film by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States.

The film features Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Barbara-O, Trula Hoosier, Vertamae Grosvenor, and Kaycee Moore. Shot in 28 days, Daughters of the Dust was filmed on St. Helena Island and Hunting Island, off the South Carolina coast. For the sake of authenticity and poetry, she used Gullah dialect in the film. She chose not to use subtitles, preferring to have audiences be immersed in the language.

Gaining critical praise, for its rich language and use of song, and lyrical use of visual imagery, the film was the first feature film by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States. The film won awards at the Sundance Film Festival and others.

In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Check out the trailer below: