Here's the next installment in our ongoing coverage of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, the current retrospective of black filmmakers being showcased at UCLA.
Here, we have thoughts from Jena English, a filmmaker who attended the screening of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust last Friday:
It was 20 years ago that I stepped out of the Baldwin Theatre in Los Angeles after seeing what was probably the first film by a Black woman director I’d ever seen. The film featured an all black cast portraying a family in the GA Sea Islands off the coast of the American South on the dawn of their exodus to the main land and opportunity.
Needless to say, to a 16 year old black, female aspiring filmmaker, it was an important moment. Not only did I leave having been introduced to a part of my heritage I didn’t know existed, but also to a filmmaker who proved that there were others out there like me, interested in bringing an alternative vision to American cinema. The director Julie Dash, crafted an experience both familiar and innovative, influenced by the European film tradition and uniquely African American at the same time. Breathtaking cinematography and circular storytelling set her film apart not just from mainstream Hollywood, but from the African American tradition to that point.
The story is centered around the Peazant family in Ibo Landing just after the turn of the last century. They are preparing to leave their isolated home filled with history joyful and full of pain, to embark on a new life on the mainland. A family member who has already moved to the promised land, has arrived with a photographer to document the final day on the Island. The conflict is centered around the return of an outcasted Sister, Yellow Mary played by Barbarao, and the Matriarch’s refusal to leave.
The film consists largely of conversations about the importance of family, and what it means to remember and to forget. There is a red herring plot line of the rape of Eli Peazant’s wife and the resulting baby she is carrying, which is rendered irrelevant by the drama of intrafamilial animosities, reunions, and packing. The story, although fairly linear, is not of the traditional western narrative. It winds around in a circular fashion echoing our African ancestry in the same way the characters do, coming back around to the same subjects again and again from different points of view.
So, after 20 years, how has this film held up? Is it still the breakthrough cinematic feat that it was in 1991? Well, yes, at least as much as it ever was. The brand new 35 mm print shown as part of the LA Rebellion retrospective at UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater, is a testament to the importance of film preservation. It beautifully showcases the photography of the scenery and costumes. However, a second viewing reveals the downside of the circular storytelling. It’s length (at an hour and 52 minutes) is apparent. Nevertheless, it’s themes are still powerful.
What do we gain and give up by “moving on” to bigger and better things? As one panelist commented during the Q&A afterwards, the film asks, “at what point to we cease being Africans and become African Americans?” This statement struck me because I realized that it had been almost 15 years since I had pondered that question myself. Another audience-member answered by saying from her perspective, we become African American when we forget. I want to elaborate on this point because I think she was wrong, and I don’t think Ms. Dash’s film is saying that at all. What has saddened me most over the years as a member of the Black community, is how much we define ourselves by what we don’t have. It’s this type of deficit thinking that has crippled us possibly as much as the hardships imposed from outside forces. I have always thought that what makes me African American is the things that I remember, the Africanisms that I retain despite years and miles of distance. Being African American is using Visconti as an influence, while retelling a story the way a griot would. It’s remembering Africa in our ways, our habits, and our bones, while appropriating what we relate to from the West, that makes us uniquely African American.
I refuse to think of my culture in terms of what I don’t have, or what I am not. And Daughters of the Dust is really in the spirit of surplus thinking rather than deficit thinking. It’s this inclusive, positive (for lack of a better word) portrayal that makes this film as moving and important to people now as it was 20 years ago. The only deficit that comes to mind is the lack of films like Daughters among the “Madea Goes to Jail”s and the “Big Momma’s House”s of the past decade. The independent Black cinema of the 70s 80s and 90s has all but disappeared like the Black-owned theatre I saw Daughters in 20 years ago. We are truly at a deficit, when what was promise 20 years ago, has given way to longing for a more promising time.