The big screen is the best place to see this restored 1991 gem from African American film-maker Julie Dash; it now has a cinema re-release, perhaps partly due to the fact that its imagery and style inspired Beyoncé’s Lemonade video. It is a mysterious, fabular and sometimes dreamlike film with its own theatrical poise. At times it reminded me of Chekhov, or maybe a performance of Shakespeare’s Tempest. (I wondered if this might not have been an influence on Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.)
It is set in 1901 on the South Carolina island of St Helena, where descendants of slaves have lived away from the burgeoning 20th century of the US and kept African culture alive. Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) is the village’s proud matriarch and embodies an ageless spiritual connection with the past. “The ancestor and the womb are one and the same,” she says. Though Nana has no desire to live anywhere else, younger generations are impatient to go to the mainland and distant cousins arrive with exciting news of this place where the future awaits them. Christianity is part of this future, the cause of tension with the islanders’ religious practices; more tension is due to the fact that Eula (Alva Rogers) is pregnant after being raped on the mainland and her husband, Eli (Adisa Anderson), cannot come to terms with this, or the fact that the child may not be his.
Daughters of the Dust has a sensibility that could be compared to the post-colonial fiction of India and Africa. As for Dash, she is still at the height of her film-making powers. Perhaps Hollywood could make it possible for this remarkable director to make a new fiction feature, maybe a full-length remake of her short Illusions, about African Americans in the 1940s US film industry.