Dash’s feature film Daughters of the Dust is a languid, dreamy, and elegant meditation on the Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia’s Sea Islands. Early in the twentieth century, many islanders, descendants of the Nigerian Igbo, decided to leave the secluded islands and travel north to find work in the burgeoning industrial economy. The film is narrated by an unborn girl child, who speaks of the importance of tradition, ancestors, and cultural legacy while many in the community pack for the journey north. The women keep the memories of the old ways, which include tribal practices and the retelling of ancient tales. In the days before the 1902 migration, family members gather to say farewell and embrace those who will remain. The women wear flowing linen gowns and carry their precious belongings to the small boats that will take them away. Their enslaved forebears were survivors of forcible exile from their ancestral home, and these islanders are practiced in keeping their families intact, even when separated by miles.
With time effortlessly shifting from the present to the past and future, Dash’s visual family album illustrates the Gullah people and the preservation of their unique African American culture. The National Film Registry selects twenty-five films each year that showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage; Daughters of the Dust was added to the registry in 2004.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
The Sea Islands of Georgia, described by writer/director Dash as "a kind of Ellis Island for Africans," are the setting for her story about an extended family torn by the pressures of modernity. The Peazant clan, led by its matriarch, Nana, gathers at Ibo Landing on St. Helena Island in 1902, as many of the group are about to leave their home for the mainland and hoped-for prosperity. Instead of following a linear narrative, Dash presents a series of visually ravishing and emotionally charged vignettes in which various members of the family confront and connect with each other. The voice-over narration and dialogue are presented in the Gullah dialect native to the Sea Islands. Viewers are immersed in the sound and rhythm of the words spoken by the characters, one of whom is the Unborn Child, a figure from the future who observes and comments on the actions of her ancestors.
Dash claims that one of her purposes in making this film was to "redefine the way that black women look on film," a goal she realized beautifully through the innovative eye of cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Daughters of the Dust is a towering achievement of American independent cinema, made with a love for its subject and a conviction of purpose that shine through every frame.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, p. 117.