It's still a small miracle, one that hasn't been sufficiently celebrated, that "Moonlight" won the Oscar for Best Picture last month.
The fact that a story of African-American lives told by African Americans wasn't ignored by the Hollywood establishment is remarkable. But "Moonlight" isn't a one-off, but part of a continuum of landmark movies about the African-American experience that includes Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and many more films.
One of those movies, Julie Dash's 1991 drama "Daughters of the Dust," belongs on that timeline. And now's the time, as it returns to Utah with a 25th-anniversary restoration, to appreciate this nearly lost classic.
Dash paints a multigenerational portrait of an African-American family at a crossroads. It's 1902, and the Gullah community on the Sea Islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts have lived in isolation for decades. These former slaves and their descendants carry with them the traditions of their African ancestors and the memories of slavery and persecution.
Now, though, the members of the matriarchal Peazant family are planning an exodus, to join the Great Migration north. The family is led by Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), an old woman who keeps the African traditions and has no intention of leaving the place she calls home.
Two family members from up north arrive at Ibo Landing to help facilitate the family's journey. One is Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), a devout Christian who wants the family to progress and sees Nana's traditions as sacrilege. The other is the worldly Mary Peazant (Barbara-O), whose arrival — and the presence of her companion (and maybe lover) Trula (Trula Hoosier) — draws dagger stares from Nana's haughty daughter Haagar (Kaycee Moore).
Meanwhile, Nana's granddaughter Iona (Bahni Turpin) is urged to stay behind by her lover Julian (M. Cochise Anderson), a Cherokee. Eli (Adisa Anderson), Nana's grandson, is confronted with the news that his wife, Eula (Alva Rogers), is pregnant and that the child — called The Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren), who narrates the film along with Nana — may be the result of a white man raping her.
Dash, who wrote and directed, approaches the Peazant family's story as anthropologist, historian and poet all in one. She explores the Peazant women as individuals with their own motives and passions, but also sets these characters within the larger story of the African-American experience — struggling for their place, decades after the Civil War.
The casting pays tribute to African-American cinema that led up to it. Moore starred in "Killer of Sheep," and Tommy Redmond Hicks, from Spike Lee's debut "She's Gotta Have It," plays Viola's friend Mr. Snead — a photographer who wants to chronicle the Peazant family history while also embodying its industrialized future.
Dash's not-quite-linear storytelling — there's a beginning and an end, but plenty of back and forth in the middle — finds room for everyday events, like family picnics and children playing on the beach. All of it is captured gorgeously by Arthur Jafa, whose cinematography won an award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival.
"Daughters of the Dust" captures with precision and great beauty a point in history, the transition of African Americans from rural to urban at the turn of the last century. In so doing, Dash's masterpiece becomes an important piece of movie history, one that is worth studying decades later.
'Daughters of the Dust'
Julie Dash's landmark 1991 film, examining the African-American migration north circa 1902, returns in a 25th-anniversary restoration.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, March 17.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for mature themes and language.
Running time • 112 minutes.