Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Daughters of Dust is a Poignant Upending of Cinematic Norms

It can be hard to fully appreciate the magnitude to which cis-het white male filmmakers have exclusively dominated cinematic language until one sees a project hailing from a director that doesn't fall into demographic. The works of Celine Sciamma are a great example of this with their stories that tend to eschew specific populations, like adults in Water Lillies or men for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, to allow for greater focus on their individual lead characters. Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust is like a precursor to Sciamma's works in how it makes a conscious effort in which characters occupy the screen and which ones do not, upending traditional cinematic norms in the process.

Specifically, Daughters of the Dust features a number of flashbacks to the ancestor of the principal characters working as slaves for white slave-owners. It's a sight familiar to anyone who has watched a film about the experiences of Black people in American territories in the 19th-century. However, unlike most of those other features covering this territory, we never see the white slave-owners. Instead, the camera exclusively focuses on the slaves themselves with their hands permanently tinged in blue (a side effect of their work) effectively communicating the long-lasting nature of their anguish. Both the lack of white characters and the use of ominous blue stains are extremely unique approaches in the world of cinematic depictions of slave experiences but it's one of the many ways Daughters of the Dust pushes boundaries in such a thoughtful fashion.

Those kinds of unique creative decisions manifest in a story set in 1902 that sees the Peazant family uniting for a family gathering. Residing in Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island, this families most prominently featured members include Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), who now lives in the city and carries on a romantic relationship with Trula (Trula Hoosier), and the families matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day). The social gathering these two and the entire Peazant clan engage in is rife with familiar conflict, particularly against Yellow Mary's choice to move out to the city as well as with how Nana Peazant clings to old-timey traditions.

The entire story emerging from these interactions might as well be Ebenezer Scrooge in how it's constantly influenced by the past, the present and the future! In all seriousness, the fusing together of all three of these elements is another one of Daughters of Dust intriguing unorthodox creative choices. The default storytelling approach for period piece movies is to stay firmly in the past, it's rare to have one of these projects directly interact with subsequent eras of history. To boot, many of these movies slavishly adhere to realism, they wouldn't dare engage with more heightened material like a moment in Daughters of Dust where the spirit of a child appears and disappears in a photoshoot.

Clearly, Daughters of Dust having such a sequence indicates that this Julie Dash directorial effort is a period piece unafraid of grappling with the future and of eexploring the future through stylized means. That concept of the future is physically embodied by our narrator, an adolescent figure known only as Unborn Child (Kay-Lay Warren) who will eventually be born to Eli Peazant (Adisa Anderson) and Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers). Through the character of Unborn Child, who makes explicit dialogue references to how she and Naza Peazant are united, Daughters of the Dust powerfully communicates how the stories this family will endure. Its members, like Nana Peazant, may be mortal and they can feel like the world around them is crumbling like in a scene where Eli discusses with Naza Peazant how his wife was sexually assaulted.

But thanks to future members like Unborn Child, the Peazant family will go on. Their individual experiences, the love they have for one another and the Gullah culture that so heavily informs the Peazant's can live on forever. It's a moving theme regarding the stalwart permanent nature of the Peazant clan. Such a concept is vividly communicated without compromising the realistically messy character dynamics that emerge between individual family members. After all, a family can still love each other and go on seeing each other even when they share tense and awkward encounters. Such encounters lead to another highlight of Daughters of the Dust, the naturalistic performances lent to the various Peazant relatives.

Just scenes of these characters flipping through and wishing for gifts found in a catalog of lavish items or Yellow Mary and her companions shooting the breeze under a gorgeous tree prove to be immensely entertaining thanks to the authentically-rendered rapport shared between the actors. Also aiding the engaging nature of these dialogue-heavy sequences is the splendid costume design work by Arline Burks Gant. Here we see another upending of traditional cinematic language in how the characters of Daughters of Dust are outfitted in luxuriant period-era attire that is never afforded to Black characters in movies set in America's past. The Peazant family is allowed to have their own unique wardrobe that can reflect their own individual personalities rather than just adhering to the one-size-fits-all visual aesthetic of traditional period piece costume design norms for Black characters. In this aspect and so many other's, Daughters of the Dust dares to challenge the norms of American cinema all while delivering a poignant exploration of how the past can live on well into the future.

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