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Film / Daughters of the Dust

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"We are as two people in one body. The last of the old, and the first of the new."
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Daughters of the Dust is a 1991 film written and directed by Julie Dash.

It is set among the Gullah people of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina—an isolated and unique culture preserving its own dialect and African-American traditions. As the film opens in 1902, the Peazant family has already lived on St. Helena Island for decades. However, the whole family is on the verge of leaving the island and journeying north in search of jobs and economic opportunity. Viola and "Yellow Mary" are cousins returning to the island for a visit; Viola is a conservative Christian while Mary is a free spirit who has brought her lesbian lover along with her. Nana Peazant, the matriarch of the clan, is a guardian of the old traditions. Another cousin, Haagar, lives on the island but has contempt for the old ways and yearns to move to the mainland and live a more modern life.

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Tropes:

  • Anachronic Order: The film jumps back and forth in time to keep track of the various storylines taking place around the island.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Several close ups of the reeds and the wildlife of St. Helena.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: 24 hours.
  • End of an Age: Nana fears that by leaving the island, the family will forget its Gullah roots and become assimilated.
  • Food Porn: That crab and shrimp gumbo family dinner looks goddamn delicious.
  • Headbutt of Love: Yellow Mary and Nana when they have their meeting and Mary talks about why she had to leave.
  • Magical Realism: Mostly realistic, but the film is shot in an occasionally dreamlike, surreal manner. More straightforwardly, the spirit of the Unborn Child is somehow able to materialize, and then appear and disappear at will.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: The parentage of the Unborn Child is uncertain, as Eula was raped by a white man.
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  • Monochrome Casting: Except for St. Julien Lastchild the Cherokee, that is.
  • Narrator: The spirit of the "Unborn Child", daughter of Eula and Eli, great-granddaughter of Nana. Somehow manages to pop up on the island many years before she is actually born.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Between the characters speaking in the Gullah creole (English mixed with West African and other languages) and the thick accents they speak it with, much of the dialogue can be hard to follow. Except for Nana's first few lines, there are no subtitles.
  • Scenery Porn: Hard to go wrong with an island setting, and this film has many gorgeous shots of St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: As the boat approaches the island in the opening scene, Viola says "What's past is prologue."
  • Significant Name: The slave ship that took Bilal to America was called the Wanderer.
  • Southern Gothic: Played with. The film contains plenty of elements associated with Southern Gothic (swampland setting, supernatural references and events, a sense of decay and death, references to the South's ugly legacy of slavery) but gives them a more positive, almost tragic spin - they're all elements of the Gullah culture, and by leaving them behind on the island the Peazant family risks losing its family history and memory.
  • Starbucks Skin Scale: "Yellow Mary", although Viola notes that she isn't really all that light-skinned. (Mary's lover Trula is actually a much better example of this trope.)
  • A Storm Is Coming: An argument about whether or not to leave the island for the north, mainly featuring Haagar giving an angry rant about Nana's superstitions, ends with a roll of thunder and one of the other family members observing that a storm is coming.
  • Title Drop: "We are the daughters of these old dusty things Nana is carrying in a tin can," says Eula, referring to Nana's can carrying her magical herbs and charms.
  • The Voiceless: St. Julien Lastchild looks handsome on a horse or sitting in a large tree, and he writes a passionate letter that Iona reads, but he never talks.
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