Sunday, April 1, 2018

"DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST" (1991): ONE OF THE MOST STUNNING FILMS EVER MADE FINALLY GETS ITS DUE - by CEJ



________________________________________________



DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST 

Dir. - Julie Dash
Cast: Cora Lee Day, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Barbara O, Trula Hoosier, Adisa Anderson, Alva Rogers, Umar Abdurrahamn, Kaycee Moore, Bahni Turpin, Tommy Redman Hicks, Tony King, Cornell Royal, Vertamae Grosvenor, Sherry Jackson
Written by  - Julie Dash
Produced by - Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa
Music - John Barnes
Dir. of Photog. - Arthur Jafa
Editors - Joseph Burton, 
Amy Carey
Running Time: 112 mins.
Release: Jan. '91 (Sundance), Sept. 10, '91 (Toronto Fest)
Dec. 27, '91 (U.S. theatrical)
Sept. 11, '16 (rest: Toronto)
Dist: Kino / Cohen Media

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     We love extremely visual movie making! And it's no exaggeration to say Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991) is one of cinema history's most stunningly gorgeous films ever. Now, "visual movie making" isn't automatically a redundant phrase as (to us at least) it doesn't just mean moving frames (the definition of film) or "nice pretty images". Nowadays you can get that anywhere, from your average music video to technically well executed and witty Super Bowl ad spots. But no, by our definition truly "visual movie making" is when the images and characters and other elements of a film - be they in a feature, short, TV episode or whatever - are so inexorably ... psychologically ... spiritually (if you will) linked that the whole becomes infinitely more than the sum of its parts. It ends up being a delicate house of cards of light and sound where no one of those elements can independently exist apart from the other without each losing their artistic potency.


     Remember in the original BLADE RUNNER when replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) finally catches up with his creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and while seeking a way to lengthen his life span via altering his own genetic coding he and his maker launch into a high tech debate which in the end winds up only explaining how any attempt to change Batty's established DNA sequence will result in his entire biology crashing? Well, in the best sense, truly visual film making - where the DNA strands of character, narrative and cinematography are so closely knotted together - is the exact same thing. 


     Omar Sharif was originally concerned that his titular character in David Lean's epic love story DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) would come off as inert because he (and if you genuinely take the time to notice, it's true) didn't really have a lot of dialog in a movie with a running time clocking in excess of three hours. But after viewing early edits, and realizing what Lean was doing, Sharif was stunned to see how the entire film was almost literally seen through that character's eyes. Watching DOCTOR ZHIVAGO today, after having heard Sharif's words, it all now in retrospect seems obvious. The film itself as photographed / shot, ... in it's very style and execution is an extension of the character's psychology, ... of his very soul - the dichotomous (at times conflicting) eyes and soul of a man who is both scientist and poet. And as such Freddie Young's "conflicting" cinematography features love scenes shot in an often gritty and color de-saturated state, while scenes of war and violence and poverty are often lensed in a gorgeously filtered manner. In fact a huge disagreement over this kind of visual irony which Lean wanted caused original cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and the director to part ways not long into the production.

The eyes have it: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)

     Another inspiring example is in Walter Hill's 1993 historical drama GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND. Shot by Lloyd Ahern in Utah, Arizona and California - and in some of the same locations sage brush auteur John Ford was known to call home - Hill's political western from the very beginning features audience-encompassing widescreen vistas. But it's not just because "It looks great to shoot westerns this way".

     In a 1993 interview Ahern spilled the beans on how the film's entire visual aesthetic was designed to ultimately funnel down to a single scene near the film's midway point where Gene Hackman as U.S. Army Gen. George Crook and Wes Studi as Geronimo sit in a small canyon alcove to discuss possible peace. In the sequence Studi asks, "With all of this land why is there no room for the Apache? Why must the white-eye have all land?". And in that moment the camera does not do the expected thing - which would be a pullback or other transition to a sprawling Monument Valley-like vista out of the John Ford playbook. Uh, uh!. Instead there's a very quiet but pronounced closeup on Hackman's face as his eyes glance to the horizon behind Studi, and he struggles for an answer ... but can't come up with one. The cinematographic scheme of the entire film was designed for that one f**king awesome closeup which spoke millions, and spoke it with no words. That's what we mean by "truly visual" film making. For the last 27 years Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST has remained at the top of our "Most Visually Stunning Films Ever Made" list for that very reason.

The eyes have it: GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993)

     Taking place in 1902 on St. Simons Island (just off the coast of Georgia), DAUGHTERS is centered around the Peazants - a family of Gullah islanders. For those unaware, the Gullah (aka "Geechee") are African-Americans who live in various regions of the southeastern U.S., and who maintain many of the traditions of their pre-slave-era African ancestors. This includes speaking their own "creole"-like language which primarily stems from Twi, Kikongo and other Bantu and Ghana dialects. In 1902 many still resided on St. Simons, and as such for a visitor stepping onto / into the island community, it was culture shock in not just being greeted with remnants of traditional African language, but in many ways it was stepping from a time machine into a past of perfectly preserved African tribal cultural mores and customs.

The loving, wise and matriarchal Nana (Cora Lee Day)

     As with any family, however, in DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST there are ideological differences -  here between younger members who wish to leave for a modern life on the mainland where better opportunities are promised in the northern states, and the older family and community members concerned that if this happens, their culture - that which has kept them alive and strong and proud for years - will be forever lost: diluted into non-existence within the American melting pot at a time when many blacks were seeking to distance themselves as far as possible from any vestigial memories of their enslaved past.

     One of the many wonderful things about Dash's film though is in it's ability, in the most human, relatable and realistic of ways, to express how - while neither viewpoint is wrong - they can and do cause a complicated-as-hell family dynamic.


     Told in at times non-liner fashion (we'll explain in a sec) the story of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST pivots primarily around the quadrangle of elderly and matriarchal Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) - who practices traditional African religious customs, and who vows to never leave the island; Nana's granddaughter Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) - returning for the family reunion dinner from Philadelphia, where she's become a fervent Christian; Viola's cousin Yellow Mary (Barbara O) - who also returns from the mainland with her same sex lover Trula (Trula Hoosier); and young Eli (Adisa Anderson) - Nana's grandson, who is torn down the middle as to whether he wishes to stay or leave.


      Because traditional culture, examined in DAUGHTERS' conundrum of "to be or not to be" / "to leave or not to leave", is writer / director Dash's touchstone thematic here, and as it is exemplified in the characters' clothing, lifestyle, food, religious traditions and more, that culture becomes a living and breathing character itself within the film. And as such David Lean's ZHIVAGO-esque notion of the world seen through a single character's eyes is done perhaps one better in Dash's outing than in Lean's own as DAUGHTERS employs the clever conceit of being narrated by Nana's yet-to-be born grandchild who is looking back on her family history. As you can imagine, this surreal POV allows for some stunningly realized imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Arthur Jafa - who'd go on to shoot Spike Lee's visually arresting CROOKLYN) as well as an at times non-liner narrative chronology.


     There's nothing unreal at all in the visuals and narrative, mind you. Just that everything is kind of "slowed down" to the point where we, from the perspective of the unborn child (and children are fascinated by everything they see), notice every single gorgeous detail in nearly ever single frame of film, right down to the detailed stitching of Arline Gant's multi-layered costumes, the slightly heightened sound of the waves licking the shore, the gentle breezes and rustle of leaves, and the near musical squawking of the island bird life.

     Also, probably not since Sergio Leone has anyone ever cast a company of stunningly individual real life faces to populate a film as does Dash. Every furrowed line running down the countenance of every elder has a bottomless well of history between those crevices. And you want to know more of that history though the film's running time doesn't allow it. In this regard take particular notice of the expressiveness of the older men in the cast - lead by actor Umar Abdurrahman who portrays Bilal Muhammad, a practicing Muslim on the island.


     It's also no coincidence that the main group of women who serve as our "narrative tour guides" through the film are of varying skin complexions - as this allows not only all African-Americans in particular to see themselves represented, but allows the same for most families of any ethnic group in general, as every culture in America deals with the same familial issues on display here - issues of tradition, one's roots, gender roles, ethnic self loathing, and how often skin complexion can factor into the sometimes blurred line between racial integration and culturally "selling out". While certainly every African-American watching DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST can relate to these issues and more, they are certainly not unique to blacks in America. And the microcosm of the Peazant family cleverly comes to represent ethnic culture in American society at large over multiple generations. All of this is done however in an extremely non preachy but rather entertaining and (as stated earlier) visually arresting manner.


     Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 1991, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was released theatrically by Kino International, and was the first feature film from an African-American woman director to see national distribution. There was a growing wave of African-American film makers making serious inroads into mainstream cinema at the time. In fact John Singleton's BOYZ N THE HOOD, Bill Duke's A RAGE IN HARLEM, and Spike Lee's JUNGLE FEVER all opened within months of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST back in '91. But we felt then (and still do today) that Dash, while perhaps unfairly still not as well known to the general public as are her male director counterparts, certainly taught the master class with this stunning work. Let's face it, it's quite likely that, had this exact same film been made in the 1960s by a foreign male film maker, it would today be considered a "major trend setter" - it's style and thematics of which movies would have been imitating for the next fifty years.


     Proof of it's artistic status can be found in the fact that in 2004 DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" to American film - right up there with other selections over the years such as ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 12 ANGRY MEN, 2001, APOCALYPSE NOW and more. Way to go, Julie!


     Believe it or not, in spite of all of this however, and in spite of Kino International's present day status as a home video label on par with the Criterion Collection, DAUGHTERS saw no legitimate home video release until a 1999 Kino VHS, followed by a 2000 Kino DVD. And even those quickly went out of print with the DVD then becoming a hard-to-find and high priced collectible, ... unless you were fortunate enough to burn a copy from one of  the film's occasional airings on Sundance Channel or IFC, which is what we actually did at the time. And while we're not usually fans of later day music videos blatantly appropriating / swiping the style of a relatively unknown film, it's no secret that Beyonce's visual album "Lemonade" - which patterned much of it's look on imagery from DAUGHTERS - ignited new interest in Dash's classic. In fact it generated so much interest among music and film critics, and curiosity from a new generation of film makers, the Cohen Media Group footed the bill to do a 25th Anniversary restoration and theatrical re-release of the film in 2016.

(Top) DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST - 1991 / (bottom) LEMONADE - 2016

     The restored DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was released by Sony in a Blu-ray edition in April 2017. And as of this writing (April 2018) it is currently streaming on Netflix.

     If you've never seen this one-of-a-kind gem of a film, do yourself a favor and check it out on as large an HD screen (or theatrically if you can catch a revival showing) as possible. We're fairly certain you'll be as spirited away by its timeless themes, imagery, characters and dream-like quality as we were, and as we remain to this day.

     It's been far too long in coming. But it's high time (and damn nice!) to see Dash's DAUGHTERS finally receiving its due.


                                                                                                                       CEJ

No comments:

Post a Comment