Too Tidy in the Dust

I was prepared to love Daughters of the Dust, filmmaker Julie Dash's portrayal of the conflicts within a large clan leaving a South Carolina sea island for new life on the mainland. And for the first hour I was so seduced by the dreamlike island images, the graceful movements of the characters in early-1900s costumes (the camera focuses mainly on women), the musical Gullah dialect, and the haunting background drums that I let the irritations of the film roll off me as I sat entranced.

I was also rising to the challenge of keeping straight who the 20-plus characters were, how they connected to each other, and what central conflicts were shaping their interactions. Major elements of the plot are revealed only in quick Gullah phrases (like "Dunna-worry-the-chile-no yours because your wife she force"). There is something refreshingly anti-Hollywood in having to watch every gesture and catch every throwaway line to understand what's going on.

But midway through the movie, after I had sorted out who everyone was, identified emotional conflicts without being gripped by them, and grown accustomed to breathtaking shots of women in white walking an unspoiled shoreline, certain questions began to get under my skin. Why is every woman in this family beautiful? Why do they all move like modern dancers and spend so much time lounging in fetching poses on the sand or in trees? (Granted, most of the action takes place at a family picnic, but only in flashbacks to slavery is anyone shown doing any work.) Why is their every dialogue fraught with meaning and with overwrought, ground-pounding emotion?

And - call me picky - why in this poor family does every woman wear a pristine, lacy white dress on which there is no hint of dirt or disorder after a day frolicking in sand and sea?

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Sojourners Magazine July 1992
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