Daughters of the Dust: 1st feature film by a Black woman distributed theatrically in the United States

Daughters of the Dust is a 1991independent film written, directed and produced by Julie Dash; it is the first feature film by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family on St. Helena Island in 1902, as they prepare to migrate to the North.
Featuring an unusual narrative device, the film is told by the Unborn Child. Ancestors are part of the movie, as the Peazant family has lived on the island since their first people were brought as slaves centuries before. The movie gained critical praise, for its rich language and use of song, and lyrical use of visual imagery. It won awards at the Sundance Film Festivaland others.
The film features Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Barbara-O, Turla Hoosier,Vertamae Grosvenor, and Kaycee Moore. It was filmed on Saint Helena Island inSouth Carolina.

In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by theLibrary of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Dash has published two books related to the film: Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African-American Woman’s Film (1992), which includes the screenplay; and Daughters of the Dust: A Novel (1997), set 20 years after the events in the film.


Dash conceived of the film in 1975, originally planning it to be a short without dialogue, a visual account of a Gullah family’s preparation to leave their Sea Island home to a new life in the North. It was inspired by her father’s family, who were Gullah and had migrated to New York. As she developed it over 10 years, she added layers of meaning and clarified her artistic vision. Together with Arthur Jafa, her cinematographer and co-producer, she put together a short film to use for marketing.
She was initially rejected by Hollywood executives, as this was her first full-length film. Dash said they thought it was “too different”. She thought their reaction was part of a systematic exclusion of black women from Hollywood. Persisting, Dash finally got financing from PBS’American Showcase. Her work is the first feature film by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States.


Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 among the members of the Peazant family, Gullah who live at Ebo Landing on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.  Their ancestors were brought there as slaves centuries ago, and the islanders developed a language and culture that was creolized from West Africans, of Ibo, Yoruba, Kikongo, Mende, and Twi origin. Developed in their relative isolation of large plantations on the islands, the slaves’ unique culture and language have endured in areas of the Low Country. The Peazant family, including a couple of contrasting daughters who have come back for a last dinner on the island, is meeting before most leave for the North. The film is narrated by the Unborn Child, and is influenced by accounts of ancestors, represented especially by Nana Peazant, the matriarch. She says, “We are two people in one body. The last of the old and the first of the new.” Lyrical visual images convey much of the story. The dialogue is in Gullah creole.


In 1988, Dash secured funding from the PBS series, American Playhouse, and could begin work. She cast a number of veterans of black independent cinema in various roles, as a tribute to the work they had done and the sacrifices they had made, along with a mainly African-American crew. For the sake of authenticity and poetry, she used Gullah dialect in the film. Ronald Daise, author of Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage (1987), was the dialect coach for her actors (none of whom knew Gullah). She chose not to use subtitles, preferring to have audiences be immersed in the language.
The film was shot in 28 days. Considering she had cast principal actors who were union members, as well as hired union technicians, her budget of $800,000 was very small. They filmed on St. Helena Island and Hunting Island, off the South Carolina coast.  Post-production began in January 1990 and took nearly through the end of 1991.


Daughters of the Dust opened in January 1992 to critical acclaim. The Boston Globe called it “mesmerizing”; the Atlanta Constitution described it as “poetry in motion”; and the Village Voice said that it was “an unprecedented achievement.”  At a 2005 festival showing, Michael Dembrow’s program notes said that it “explores the strands of West African and African-American experience and ties them into a cultural and spiritual knot, at once graceful, sturdy, and persevering.” 
The critic Roger Ebert wrote of the use of Gullah creole,

“The fact that some of the dialogue is deliberately difficult is not frustrating, but comforting; we relax like children at a family picnic, not understanding everything, but feeling at home with the expression of it.” 

Audiences were moved by the film; one woman told New York Magazine,

“It’s hard to explain. It makes you feel connected to all those before you that you never knew, to parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. I’m a different person now from seeing this movie. It’s a rejuvenation, a catharsis. Whatever color you are, people want to feel that sense of belonging.”


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