By Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed, Arts & Culture Editor
Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust is one of the most visually brilliant films in American cinema. Shot with only natural light, the film feels almost like a documentary, along with having some qualities of ethnography film. Dash’s story beautifully weaves layers of a painful history juxtaposed with striking visuals of the landscape. A few characters hold special merits, representing unique historical and cultural traditions, religious practices, and contemporary customs, which serve as the foundation for some African American’s today.
The setting takes place in 1902 at St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia where the Gullah/Geechee People live. The story is centered around the Pazant family, whose lineage is from those who were captured and brought to American during the transatlantic slave trade. In the beginning of the film we are introduced to Viola Pazant, a Born-again Christian who is returning home from the “Mainland” [Northeast] with her personal photographer, Mr. Snead. Along with Viola’s cousin, Yellow Mary, and her traveling companion Trula.
Viola Pazant has returned to accompany her other family members that are preparing to make the trip North. She also stands in as an emblem of the Christian Church. Throughout the film she preaches the gospel and informs everyone to, “trust in Jesus.” Mr. Snead is curious, with an unbiased viewpoint. He wants to know more about the customs of everyone on the island, and goes out of his way to talk with everyone individually. Both Viola and Mr. Snead represent the philosophical age of W.E.B Du Bois, who emphasized the importance of a dignified personal appearance, even if that meant copying the conduct and dress of the European bourgeoisie.
The matriarch Nana Pazant is the rock of the family. She maintains many traditional customs that have been passed down from her ancestors. She refuses to leave the island, adopt a new religion, and move to an unfamiliar place with “free negros.” She is constantly in a state of remembrance of the past and holds on to what connects her to the ancestors. “There must be a bond,” she states, “we came here in chains.” Nana Pazant’s salvation appears to come from her complex connection to the land, her memories with her late husband, and her ancestral customs such as removing locks of hair to add to a “charm bag,” better known as a “hand,” to give away to Viola.
One of the quietest characters featured in the film, Bilal Muhammad, a devout Muslim, stands in as a symbol of the many slaves that brought with them religious conviction, piousness, and customs from West Africa and “the colonies in the French West Indies.” In one scene we see and hear Bilal reciting parts of the Adthan, in Arabic, translating, “prayer is better than sleep, God is the greatest, there is no God, but God.” Towards the end of the film Bilal and Mr. Snead have a conversation about leaving his home as a boy to come to the island “shackled in iron.” He talks about witnessing a mass suicide of the enslaved Igbo people. Throughout the film Bilal is called a “heathen,” “backwards,” and is disregarded because of his faith practices. Historically slaves that continued to observe Islamic traditions, including the five daily prayers and other customs helped maintain a psychological strength, which provided hope and peace despite the oppressive conditions.
One of the most visually stimulating scenes of the film is when the family gathers to eat a meal together. It’s the one common staple that everyone seems to easily come together around despite some of the differences on the island. Dash accurately chose to share the history of African American people in the United States with consistent attention to customs, clothing, language, history, memory and landscape. Although the film was first introduced to the American public over twenty years ago, there are many symbolic themes that are timeless throughout. Daughters of the Dust is an honest examination of what it means to honor and cherish family and community despite the ugliness and complexities of our ancestral history.