Daughters of the Dust (1991)

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S1: Hello. And. Welcome to flashback Slate’s podcast about.

S2: Older movies and classic movies. I’m here in Slate studios with. My. Podcast here. He asked and Collins.

S3: Cameron Lowe. Good morning. And this time around it’s your choice. I would say that maybe along with the Shantel Akerman movie with Sean Dillman This is the most challenging movie that we’ve done so far. So I can’t wait to jump into it. But I think before we get to the movie proper we should set up a little bit the history of this film the kind of troubled history of this movie’s reception how long it disappeared and how it reemerged and sort of why it’s a great time to talk about it now.

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S4: Sure. And I also you know wanted to talk a little bit about why I chose this movie. Partially you chose it because we choose a wide range of things and every time we choose a movie it’s something different than we did before. So I wanted to choose this in part because we I think have like a subtheme here of rare interesting independent arthouse filmmaking by women seems to be a thing that we’ve done multiple times between Wanda and Gene Dillman and now this.

S3: I mean in part just because if women were making movies in those days they had to do it that way right.

S5: There are studio filmmakers we could talk about someone like Dorothy Eisner but her stuff is still not really restored yet. And there’s the Pino who is also working independently and who should we should get to at some point but right as you’re saying just at a certain point you really only have independent filmmaking by women and people of color. And I chose this because the last thing that we did. Imitation of Life is a historical picture about in part black women and race and gender and the intersection there of the period. So I wanted to do something that was another historical drama about black women but different because it’s far outside of Hollywood and far less classical. It’s not Douglas Sirk but you know I think equally powerful and because just this movie’s restoration recently it just put it back on people’s radar. Plus Beyonce’s lemonade was inspired by it in many ways so it was sort of in the air still but you know we should talk about just the origins of the movie. I think for Julie Dash. Julie Dash is a director out of the L.A. Rebellion school of filmmaking that’s a crew of black filmmakers who all attended UCLA in the 60s through the 80s. There’s a lot of interesting history there about for example when affirmative action policy started at UCLA at the UC system there were more black students flooding in and in UCLA with its film department were very attracted to filmmaking and it just produced a number of directors alongside Julie Dash like Haley Grandma Charles Burnett who’s Scott wonderful movies that are also in the process of being restored and others. But this movie Daughters of the dust is the first movie by black women to get kind of wider theatrical distribution it’s not the first independent film made by black women by any means but it’s the one that got the furthest in terms of its relationship to mainstream markets and studios even though Julie Dash didn’t really have the kind of career after this that you’d think she would. And even though this movie I mean was something she was developing from the 70s onward it was really long time and she has another film illusions that is also still not restored yet. A short film that is equally perceptive equally powerful so it’s interesting to think about her trying to pitch these stories to Hollywood executives and just routinely getting turned away for years and years and years and years until finally PBS is American Playhouse and that gets called gave her the eight hundred thousand dollars to finally make this movie and then it went to Sundance got glowing reviews. It won an award by the cinematography awards that right. The cinematography by Arthur Jaffa another kind of key figure in this movement won awards just. It was really a monumental thing. And yet it’s still sort of fell out of circulation it didn’t get the kind of home video released that things were getting at the time in the early 90s just didn’t have that kind of afterlife. It’s really the restoration recently and like 2016 that really really is pushing the 25th anniversary to push it back into people’s consciousness I think.

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S3: And you were saying and this is true for me too that you had not seen it until that restoration made the rounds in 2016.

S5: That’s right. It’s kind of like Wanda although this is a movie I’ve been hearing about much longer than I heard about one. It’s just one of those movies that you always hear about. You look on YouTube there’s a copy on YouTube it’s not great. I mean it’s a sort of why we have to restore these films to make them available to people because it really is such a key part. I think American independent cinema history you know you just think about how these things disappear. Right. It’s tragic frankly the number of movies that are like this that were not made or were made weren’t distributed or were distributed but only exist in Prince in someone’s closet somewhere.

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S3: Yeah. What really struck me Young on seeing it in 2016 and I want to also talk about how seeing it for a second time completely changed the experience right because it’s a pretty challenging film to mark the first show that I had walked in like you kind of knowing of the legend of Daughters of the dust as the kind of thing that you would always see mentioned in film histories you know or kind of reading about the L.A. Rebellion or about Charles Burnett Julie Dash’s name would come up but it wasn’t something you could actually get your hands on for a very long time. And I think just knowing through brief plot summary is that it was about three generations of black women on this island who had been isolated from the rest of American culture. I thought it was going to be sort of a historical epic. You know in a way I guess you could say that it is historical epic but not at all with that genre usually implies some maybe even because of the title which has this sort of romantic almost bodice ripper feeling or something. I thought it was going to be like Shogun or roots or something like that. You know where it was really a pretty traditional introduction of you know a family and then following successive generations of this family. Right. And I could not have been more wrong. So the first time I saw it. I mean honestly I really had a hard time just following who was who how are they related to each other what are the time frames in this story. And of course that lost ness is part of the experience of seeing it. Alienation is the wrong word but there’s a deliberate sense of wanting to make the viewer sort of drift along with the story. Right. And and to make it a film about a collective rather than about any particular individual. So that part of your brain that’s trained to find a protagonist in every Hollywood narrative is saying wait a minute know these were the first people we saw onscreen I thought they were the protagonists keeps on opening out wider and wider and until you see that it really is a film about a community and not just a community in this one particular slice of time 1982 when it set but really that the history of that community including these very sensory brief flashbacks to you know things that happened 100 years or more before.

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S6: Yeah.

S5: I mean one of the fascinating things about this movie and I think it’s reasonable to sort of walk out of it just with questions and wondering a wondering plot things because I think there are things that definitely like you when I saw it again and then again for this it’s time it’s like oh you know it’s like yeah you can but you can go to Wikipedia and Wikipedia will like lay out who the characters are and tell you what you know their backstories are and then you will watch it and you say oh it makes sense.

S6: It’s one of those films where there’s so many rapturous sensual images and so many things that the characters want from each other but that they’re also dealing with you know miscarriage sexual assaults. These historical questions Christianity fear of modernity slavery all of these things passing traditions down but I think a key to the movie’s value is that when you lay out all the things that are in the movie and just list them out and then think about how well you understand each of those things within the movie the pain of each of those things within the movie you realize it is so much more full than I think it would be if it were a classical narrative that like a by like illusion and ellipses and forward and backward time and slow motion and all these things you walk away with a pretty hefty you know like if the movie is just trying to introduce you to this history which is not the point of the movie I don’t think.

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S5: But if that were the main point I think I walk away with it like you know supplementing it with a little bit of reading. But I walk away from it like wow I feel like I actually got a full slice of what this culture is about and what these people are about and what they’re afraid of and what they want and all these things that’s like a lot actually that you walk away with.

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S3: So because this structure is so non traditionally narrative and there’s so many different strands interwoven I think maybe the best way to approach it is through characters and groupings of characters and then we can talk about you know how their stories relate and kind of pile on to each other but right of this ever telescoping out group of people that we get to know as the movie begins. Well who do we want to start with. I mean the very first people we see are the cousins from outside the island right from the cities is not white said which city but who have left the community and are coming back to visit on the last day before this community is essentially broken up and the majority of them moved to the mainland right.

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S4: So it’s 19 0 2 It’s about 50 years post slavery and the two cousins coming back are yellow Mary played by Barbara O and viola played by Cheryl and Bruce and I guess the ways you keep track of them is there on the boat. So in the beginning there on the boat they’re coming back to the island. And what you sort of learn about the two of them I think is essential to hang onto for this movie is that Viola when she moved from the island to somewhere north I think it’s Philadelphia she becomes devout Christian. And so there is a conflict because we have religious practices on this island that are you know you get the sense that religion is one of the many things that’s gonna shift when people leave they become Christian is the idea whereas on the island they practice essentially kind of syncretic African rain.

S6: Right. Like a combination of West African stuff plus I mean this is because we should say like Ebola landing of St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. This is a land that was once contested by the English the Spanish and the French. So the criminalization of West African cultures is like it’s just a mix of a lot of things in the movie you get a little bit of French you have a main language of English but you also have just these dialects and some Arabic gets some in Arabic as well right.

S3: So it’s no wonder that people get confused because there’s a lot going on especially because Julie Dash chose deliberately not to subtitle A couple of exceptions like when the photographer speaks French to Bilal and that’s translated for us although it all turns out not to need the French at all. He can speak English fine but I happened when I watch this on Netflix the second time after having seen it on the big screen in that revival in 2016 the the subtitles were accidentally on just from some previous thing that had been on and I just left the ball. Julie Dash might not have wanted it that way but it really helped me to figure out I mean there are some really strong accents going on a lot of different kinds of accents. And it also sort of helps to identify the characters because you know sometimes the captions would say so and so is speaking. So it’s not the ideal way to see the movie but if you’re going to watch it a couple of times it doesn’t hurt to have the subtitles.

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S5: No I really don’t think so either and I think there’s something to be said for watching it the way that she made it. But I think also when you read watching it getting your hands a little bit dirtier I do think that I think as you watch it. I think that you know I think that’s the main thing for people. But yeah that like mix of languages I think is a reflection of the mix of people that we have. So even in the two cousins Viola and yellow Mary you have two people who’ve left but yellow Mary for example had a miscarriage when she left and she has traumas related to that. It took me a couple of stillbirth or stillbirth rather Yeah it took me a couple of times to realize that the woman with her trailer was her lover because their intimacy in a film that’s full of intimacy between women family and not it looks like other forms of intimacy within the movie which I think is pointed and deliberate. So there’s the two women coming back and they have yellow marry his girlfriend and Viola has a man named Mr. Sneed who is a photographer who she’s brought along essentially to document right the last day on the island.

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S3: Right.

S6: Because again. And just to make sure we emphasize this enough this is a big deal for these people leaving this island. This is like a transition from you know a life immediately post slavery with still people alive who remember being slaves and who are still rooted in the customs and rituals and spiritual beliefs that helped them survive slavery and maintain a sense of familial ancestral culture.

S5: And we’re talking about leaving that and going to the mainland moving north with the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north largely to escape the violence of the South after slavery it is still not a very safe place to be for black people. So they all move north and this connects you to the long line of just African-American literature about the Great Migration and about the experiences that people faced when they moved north. But specifically about what they were fleeing when they left the south.

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S4: So this is not something that the movie lays out for us very neatly but it is all there that this is about a big leap into the future in a way. So that’s one strand.

S3: All right. So that’s the cousins coming back in the Strand there is sort of essentially about these certified people you know going back to visit the culture that they come from which causes some tension although there are also people on the island as we’ll get to that tend to side more with the city side like Hagar who’s really dying to get off the island and start her new life for the next few characters we meet. And it takes a while to figure out their story as well because it’s quite elliptical as it’s first presented. Is this married couple Eli and Ula Ula is expecting a baby. And we learned very early on that Eli’s very unhappy about this. We actually learn it through a voiceover told by their unborn child and that becomes a really important strand in the narrative is that the baby that Ula is pregnant with although she’s never born during the course of the movie is seen during the course of the movie and heard we hear her voice speaking in voiceover about her family. She’s almost sort of as her great grandmother says at one point she’s kind of an old soul and an unborn baby at the same time right. Is that place for the ancestor in the womb come together you also occasionally see her as this almost ghost like child who will for example appear in a photograph that’s being taken and where she’s right actually there right up into someone’s body her mother’s body. Yes that’s a beautiful scene where she kind of emerges into her mother’s body really. But so this figure of the unborn child is the one who tells us about the trouble between Eli and Ula and the trouble between Eli and Ula turns out to be that Ula has been raped apparently on the mainland by a white man. Again I don’t think that’s ever directly said.

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S4: I sort of put it together from it’s a combination of putting it together a little bit from the movie I think I knew the first time that it was a white man. Because part of the tension there is that she doesn’t want to say who it was something that comes up in the film and she’s discussing this with other women is just that you know again in the immediate post slavery moment it was the high time for lynchings. And I think part of what the fear is of her telling her husband is that his reaction to that the way he handles that his relationship to the outside world the White worlds when they get to the mainland will be made much more difficult. You know like she just isn’t want to put him in danger. I think by making him want to go out and do something about this because he could just wind up lynched somewhere because of how he responds to this. It’s a built in powerlessness I think over how to handle like racialized sexual assault at this time. That’s a huge part of us.

S7: And of course she’s traumatized he’s traumatized. He has very difficult and you know not always morally correct feelings about her body the baby what happened.

S5: But basically it’s a really I think tough conflict between these two people over what happened and just how he kind of feels like he’s not the father of the child because biologically he’s not.

S3: We don’t know that right. Rather we don’t. The question is we don’t know whether he will be the father.

S4: We don’t know that but he assumes he’s not. He seems to have internalized that a great deal.

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S3: Right. And so then again this is all stuff that’s under the surface in the movie nobody would come out and say this stuff because it would just be too flat. But I feel like there’s also a critique of the patriarchy. You know in the way that that relationship is handled right and and yellow Mary’s acceptance or not into the community is handled and there’s that beautiful moment near the end where Ula unites her story with yellow marriage and says Oh you think that we’re both ruined because of the things that have happened to us. But she just rejects that narrative utterly.

S8: Yeah and definitely we need to get back to that closing scene because of the way that it somehow things by that moment you think that you sort of understand the connections that she makes in that beautiful monologue really really really lay out why for her they need to move past this idea of them being ruined women because of the things that happened to their mothers and the things that are maybe going to happen when they leave the right.

S3: Well that’s one of those moments that I was saying that you know the story suddenly opens up to things that happened 100 or more years ago right. Because when she talks about everyone being part of their mothers. I mean she’s leaving out the fathers for a reason right. Leaving out the fathers because any of their fathers four generations going back could be white men who rape their mothers and it’s something that is just part of the culture since forever and yet has remained as this stain on the women in the culture.

S5: So even even in the fact that they call yellow Mary yellow Mary I mean there’s a there’s a kind of comment about it early in the film because she is compared to the other people in the film not particularly light skinned. But that kind of moniker the idea of racial mixing is a part of the fabric of black ancestry is complicated. And part of the reason to be called Yellow Mary or be perhaps lighter skinned than other people is because of things like sexual assault during the slave era. So these things are all sort of embedded as as you’re saying. But what I really like about this movie is that I never felt like I had to understand the minutiae of everything to understand the feelings. And I think that something that we come up against a few times in this podcast so far just like the ways that movies generate feelings and the feeling is a thing you’re supposed to understand that’s another reason why I chose this actor Douglas Sirk. Mr. feeling’s big melodrama guy is because the feelings matter so much more I think in the end than the nitty gritty details like those details absolutely matter and in this movie they have great historical and spiritual etc. and poor I just never felt that not totally understanding the movie in any way prevented me from really sort of walking away from it. Overwhelmed by the things that I did understand.

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S3: I agree. Because after that first viewing I have to say that I walked out understanding at almost zero. If you had told me like name four characters in this movie and how they’re related to each other I would have had a very hard time diagramming that out. Yeah I would’ve remembered yellow Mary name I would remember and yet I walked out of it feeling completely changed and really grateful for having been able to see it and really also just moved by the sense of place you know as much as it’s about relationships. This is about people’s relationship to a place and there’s all these obviously beautiful shots of the women in white dresses on the beach this you know iconic image from this movie but also things like that early close up of the dirt in Nanna’s hands you know that you see again it’s almost filmed in sepia tone as if it were from long ago. And she talks a lot about the soil the dirt you know they’re just really connected to this actual hunk of marshy unguarded about dirt you know and. And once you’ve been imbued with that sense of their love for the land that final scene of their boat pushing off as they head for the mainland is just so painful. It also of course brings back the opening scene of the visitors arriving which you know in real time Julie Dash said this is all supposed to take place in about a day and a half. So I mean of course it feels like you’ve lived through a century. By the end of it not because the movie is boring but because you’re covering a century of history. But if you think about it. Yeah. Basically they take some photographs. They make a meal. They have that celebratory meal right. They have a few encounters and there’s not that much that happens really.

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S5: Right. As you’re saying there’s the long things that are happening over the movie like preparing the meal. And that’s something that happens across a few scenes or happen simultaneously with other scenes that we’ll see. And I think part of the way to watch the movie is just think about the couplings of people and think about the groups of people. So when you have all the men talking in one scene and simultaneously it would seem that all the women as a preparing dinner are talking about the same thing but as women you know those are moments where I kind of hook him to the movie and I see just these parallels or these contrast like those are the things that helped me keep track of what’s going on because there are other minor incidents. There’s a moment where an older woman on the island is teaching young kids some of the old language is the only things that she remembers you know there’s encounters between of course Eli and Ula between yellow Mary and Ula between Viola and everyone it precedes in terms of those kinds of incidents.

S4: I think it’s funny like I think about it now and like even as in the moment I kind of lose my toehold and I’m you know intentionally disoriented by the movie and retrospect I’m like No actually I think somehow this all makes sense to me actually it all makes sense that this happened this happened this happened right.

S3: It’s not vague or drifting at the scenes aren’t just sort of drifting by in order to be beautiful right. I mean everything is there for a reason but there is also I think a sense of narrative disorientation or displacement that’s very purposeful. And it’s pretty radical. I mean it makes you see why this movie didn’t do great at the box office at the time. You know and I think it’s not only attributable to it being about a culture that people aren’t familiar with. You know in that it was a black movie in 1991 because actually there were a lot of all black cast movies that were doing incredibly well around right writing that really was the moment of that right. Yeah but I think that’s just the narrative difficulty of it must have really been hard for audiences at the time.

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S6: Yeah. And you know part of to me the tragedy of Julie Dash having to take long to complete this movie is also just that in terms of narrative difficulty Hollywood’s relationship to for example foreigner house and Godard Antonioni and all these things coming out of the 60s I would imagine actually that studio exacts had probably been seeing more movies closer to this when she was starting this project than what they were seeing when she actually got to make it. Like thinking about like the early mid 70s. Yeah. By that point I mean that’s the new Hollywood you know right. That’s like that moment of history studios collapsing everywhere. But that was the moment when those born arthouse directors were really making headway like there’s an art house boom. People were watching difficult movies last year Marion bad did really well at the box office. And that to me is a much more elliptical movie.

S5: You know I watched that movie four times this year because I wrote liner notes on it.

S9: I still don’t know if I still have no idea.

S5: You know it’s it’s just interesting that executives were so dismissive earlier on and that’s sort of where I think that their fear wasn’t just off a difficult movie it was of a difficult movie about black women in particular that they really were afraid of because if Godard had come up with a movie like this. In fact he has made movies that are just as elliptical and even more I think jagged and aggressively disorienting than this one because this one is warm I think with spiritual feeling and love and all these other things that could actually be so don’t have for me. So yeah it’s just interesting that this was somehow sort of beyond the pale when she was first starting her own main main character. We have to get to his nana.

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S3: Yeah. I think we have. How could we not have gotten to Diana. You know the structuring principle of this whole movie so she is played by Coralie de she’s Nana his aunt she’s really the matriarch. I think the oldest living woman on the island it seems to be right and seems to be the grandmother great grandmother great aunt and basically everyone everyone that we meet and she is someone who’s extremely tied to the island really resistant of the idea of leaving. Is there any question of her leaving at any point because I know there’s you know there’s some question throughout the movie about who’s leaving and who’s staying and surprises there but Nana never planned to leave.

S4: I don’t think so. Yes she’s pretty firmly in that door yeah. It just has to be said that I think her performance clearly day’s performance in this movie is one of my favorite performances of all time because I think there’s any one thing in this movie that I think is suffused with that sense of history. It’s everything that the movie is about anything. I think it’s her face.

S5: I think it’s her outbursts her pain at the idea of all of her family leaving her pain at the idea of them not bringing with them all the ancestry. I mean I think one of the most moving moments in the film is when she takes out a piece of hair. She has a tin can that she keeps memories and totems and icons in and she has a piece of hair that her mother cut from her hair when her mother was being sold away and it just something like something like that kind of object you don’t even need a close up on it. We get a shot of her surrounded by all the other women she has like a darker purple outfit on and everyone else is in white. So she really stands out and she’s the oldest one so everyone’s sort of facing her.

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S6: And she just has this clump of hair that she explains what it is and she kisses it. And just seeing her do that in the midst of three generations of these women is extremely powerful. The expressions on her face when she speaks about the history the sense of fear that she has it’s just everything that the movie is doing is in her. We ask. As two. People. In one batch. Nasty. The all. Is. They were. Always.

S10: In this double act. As a Sunday see. We came here in James. Can we. Survive. Best of luck. It’s so why does she even. Dad.

S3: And she adds her own hair a lack of her own hair ends with them reaching the mainland. You write that scene is extraordinary and it is also true that a lesser film would have cut to a close up. Right the clump of hair. Right.

S6: Right. And this one doesn’t which is interesting because of the things that we do get close ups of as you mentioned the sort of the dirt early on other food that they make as they’re eating just these wonderfully evocative pieces of their lives. But this is one thing that we don’t see that way. We have to see it in the context of everyone else. And I think it’s telling that beyond the title the way that you know who this movie is really about is their patriarchs in this film too. And it’s not only that the movie doesn’t explore them. It’s just that I really mostly think about this movie in terms that women would want to think about this movie I think about the women on the beach the women talking and arguing with women gossiping about Nana the women talking about stillbirths and rape and all these things. That’s what it stands out to me. And also because it seems like most of the younger people in it are women that there are little boys et cetera.

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S3: But I really think about this movie in terms of the women and she is a top that very much so since we’re talking about Nana the Cawley de figure I think we should maybe follow this thread of religion through the movie and all the debates about religion that are occurring constantly on the island among all these different belief systems does not just Christianity versus non Christianity. Right. I mean there’s there’s really a mix of spiritual feelings going on on this island and I don’t know that one of the clips that you wanted us to listen to this is a scene there last night on the island when Nana has gathered them all together and she’s constructed this kind of talisman like she’s taken a book and tied some objects to it which might contain that clump of hair we were talking about. I’m not sure some twigs and things like that. She’s basically made this little sort of talisman that she wants everybody to come and get give a kiss as this ritual goodbye. And and her idea in doing this seems to be that she’s sort of passing the ancestor worship along to them right. That she’s sort of saying by kissing this book you will take me and the rest of the ancestors with you which Viola as this devout Christian visiting the island and you know feeling like she wants to convert everybody around her as we’ve already seen her give sort of Sunday school lessons to the children of suddenly loses it for the first time Viola who’s been this very contained proper sort of Victorian Christian lady you know really the most satisfied of all. It’s just really starts to lose it at the idea that everybody including her is going to be expected to go through what she perceives as this pagan ritual every. Right. This. Was a.

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S11: Giant. Go ahead. And. Take. It. Oh. You’re.

S4: Right. Yeah. I mean one of the things about this movie is is that I feel like I don’t know this going in to it and I never really sense this.

S7: Even as I’m watching it but the movie explodes at the end in a way.

S4: There are these multiple and this is one of those scenes these multiple big scenes where people are really laying it down on a line and just because you know this scene is is not far after you this big monologue to the group about the generations of women and sexual assault miscarriage stillbirth etc. just like the idea of black women is by some people on the island definition ruined women and her wanting to very much trouble that is one thing that happens and then soon after it we get this other big conflict in the movie coming to a head where right before they’re about to leave. Yeah. As you say Nana is really just trying to make sure that people retain some of this culture and some of this place as they move into the greater world. And the thing is that I just think is so remarkable about this movie and and also just about the time it took. Julie Dash to make it is you know you look at the history of black American art and it would seem Nana like predictions about the harshness of that outside world bore out. And you know I mean you’re thinking about Julie Dash making this in the 70s to the 90s so thinking about politically what’s happening in those moments. War on Drugs crack cocaine things that are happening in cities very bad things in terms of urban decay that had very marked you know pointed bad effects on black life through the 90s the moment of you know the L.A. riots and Rodney King et cetera. Like that span of time in the future feels like a future that Julie Dash is aware of that she I think is thinking about when she’s thinking about Nana’s sort of resistance to that world. I mean I think she really is trying to sort of put Nana at the forefront of just knowing that entering this broader white world is not what people think it’s going to be. And I think part of the pain for her is that people are leaving behind this culture when they leave. But also that they’re facing something and Ula says this too is when she suggests that on the mainland it doesn’t mean you won’t get raped. Clark I think that they’re both saying this broader world of modernity that you guys are clinging to. He really has to be troubled complicated has to retain some part of this ancestry whether or not you think it’s voodoo doesn’t really matter because it’s your culture and it is a thing that may help you survive in that other world.

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S5: But it’s also your culture and it sort of dies with you it lives with you but it dies with you. And I think that’s part of what’s behind her sort of you know it’s not for her about an afterlife. It’s about a long life of ancestry that is far bigger than whether or not she is alive or dead on that island that is completely incompatible with the Christian theological premise right.

S3: So there’s sort of two reasons two for the younger generation to object to that and you see them both in that scene there’s the Christianity of Viola who says you know that belief system is unacceptable because it doesn’t allow for an afterlife. You know I reject Jesus et cetera et cetera. Then there’s Hager’s you know voodoo mess breakdown where she’s essentially just taking the side of modernity right. I mean she’s she’s not taking any religious objection. She’s just simply saying you know she wants to move into the world of modernity where they don’t boil roots and herbs to heal themselves but reasonably take modern medicine you know. So it just there’s there’s so many critiques alive on it on that island right.

S6: And it’s fascinating how for all its kind of ellipses and for all the playfulness of its structure. Julie Dash is really bringing us to these big moments. And when they do happen I feel like ever since the first time I saw it I was I was always blown away by how well I’d been prepared for the conflicts that are about to rise here and also just how much I understood about them and about everyone involved about what they felt about what’s at stake for them and the kind of basic like you know dramatic narrative sense but also just in a in a spiritual philosophical sense the weight of these debates really comes to a head for me in these moments it’s always sort of a parent.

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S5: But in the moments right before leaving this last night just so much as explicate it for me in the emotions even and the anger of Viola who as you say it really was pretty composed in Victorian before this but her anger and the fear that seems to be a part of her anger just really leap out to me. And you know the thing about the Christianity and Nana doesn’t say this but I feel like it’s on her mind it’s also you know how did blacks become Christians in the U.S. through slavery through slave masters through life on plantations. And so much of black culture is rooted in Christianity as a survival mechanism alongside these other beliefs through slavery. That’s absolutely a part of it. I grew up in a big Southern and Southern Baptist family and that’s always been on the table sort of why are we Christian because that’s what helped us get through slavery. That’s what helped us get to the civil rights movement. You know like is our common belief system churches church groups all these things are deeply embedded in black political life and spiritual life and social life. But Christianity is also a complicated flawed Western metric for understanding the world and one that was pushed onto black people not one that they kind of organically found when they got to what was being called the United States. So it’s complicated. It’s really it’s really.

S3: Oh yeah. And Viola as a symbol of kind of modernity coming back to the island is a very complicated haughtily symbol figure character as well right because she’s sort of trying to bring enlightenment in the guise of bringing Christianity but as you say that is also you know another form of sort of colonisation. Right. And she’s also coming to some degree in the guise of an anthropologist right. She brings this photographer with her. Mr. Sneed he’s an interesting character we need to talk about at some point but the whole idea of Mr. Sneed is that he’s going to record what life was like on the island. But of course when we see him recording it’s in the form of these photographs with the old fashioned camera you know with a blanket over it and everything and people sitting stiffly on the beach you know presumably have to sit still for a while in those days to come out in the photograph and you know what he is recording really has nothing to do with the vibrancy of the culture that we see all around him in fact it has to come to a standstill and be artificially isolated in order to be recorded. Also I notice at the end of that wonderful scene that we heard the clip from right after Viola’s breakdown. What does Mr. Sneed do. He goes and kisses the book the object you know even though he’s also a presumably proper Christian from the city and then he head straight over to Viola and grabs her in a clinch and kisses her and everybody’s sort of hooting about it. That’s like the resolution of their story right. To me that was a great moment for Mr. Sneed. You know because he’s both sort of throwing away his anthropological framework and you know you sort of joining into the culture and that sort of freedom to express his desire for real life.

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S6: Absolutely. It’s funny how the film has room for that because it I won’t even say it has room for that because I do think the multiple forms of intimacy between black people immediately following slavery but also during slavery is very much what this movie is about.

S5: But it’s just interesting again this movie has so many things going on the fact that I even walk away with a sense of that desire which on the wrong of things that this movie is exploring.

S3: You know this need Viola is sort of really remarkable and another place where you see that a romance that’s only very glancing Leigh alluded to but really structures the whole movie is the romance between the Native American boy who lives on the island who has the fantastic character name of St. Julian last child and Iona the daughter of Hagar who we see at the beginning with the two of them have this kind of puppy love thing going on but he basically disappears for the entirety of the movie. After that we don’t even know where he lives. Like Where’s he located on the island. Does his family live there is he just there to somehow hunt or fish or something.

S7: We see him laboring with the other men occasionally but yeah his place on the island is still mysterious to me although what’s interesting is that even though I don’t see it I watch the movie and I feel like it becomes easier to imagine that he also comes from a context of people who have a similar relationship to the land relationship to their longstanding beliefs relationship to colonization. It’s like all there for me even as she doesn’t necessarily show it I mean because he’s staying for a reason too.

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S4: And you know he and Iona decide to stay together. So there’s something there for them. It’s not like everyone’s leaving and then everyone’s gone.

S3: But that moment at the end where they’re all getting on the boat and then he just rides off with his horse and actually they’re right up together it’s fantastic it’s right out of western and Julie Dash said something so great about that in an interview. I think at the time or maybe it was recently with the revival where she wanted to have a scene where a black woman gets to ride off into the sunset at the end and no one’s chasing her.

S5: It’s really true. It’s really fantastic. Julie Dash is also just her relationship to this material is really interesting to me because as I understand it her father belong into a kind of Gullah culture and his family migrated north and part of what she’s invoking here are just the stories that her father told her family stories in the midst of.

S6: Also as a filmmaker having a very keen eye and a very perceptive sense of just things like lighting things like staging I mean her cinematographers Arthur Jaffa who is himself like a an important video artist and a cinematographer whose work for Spike Lee most recently just to bring up the Beyonce a family again in relation to this movie he shot two of the largest music videos he’s sort of someone who’s been floating around in the kind of black art world for a long time. But I think with Julie Dash I mean to your point about Mr. Stevens photographs for example the emphatic slow motion sequences that we get particularly involving the women and the girls on the beach but also some moments with Nana I feel like this like the more mystical moments really call to mind what you’re saying about the photography and the way that life sort of slows down everything’s here sort of stops for those still photographs. But Julie Dash uses this slow motion rather it’s not you know it’s not so much in this sense we usually mean it’s slowing the frame rate of sequences so that you just see the individual moments within a sequence and it feels just like a little bit jumpy it’s something it’s like flashes of memories right. Exactly in relationship to those still photographs is fascinating to me because on the one hand they’re still photographs give you mementos and they inevitably become the artifacts of this place and the way that Nanna’s objects do look for the modern world. That’s what you’re gonna have you’re gonna have photos of this place. But even that kind of relationship I just think that visually this movie is so specific and so wonderfully smart about the people that it’s about. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot because I know we both just saw the new Scorsese movie and I know something that he talks about a lot is thinking about images and movies in terms of sculpting like sculpting images with bodies with objects and there’s something really sculptural about everything happening here. It’s like in the way that the circles of people are staged and in the way that the water is always there you can always sort of hear that I mean there’s this beautiful beautiful shot of someone sitting in a tree that slowly sort of widens out and you realize how large the street Oh the one with the Spanish moss they always had this fantastic things like that that are just you know they’re not just showy they’re and they are giving the sense of place but they’re also just accommodating the lifestyle and the rhythm and the mysticism and all these other things of these people and the way that’s just so inventive to me. I mean I know that Julie Dash she’s very specifically said I want to make a movie about you know historical black women that is not the movie that people make about historical black women. So to your point about the writing off into the sunset that’s a big Ray to the ways that they so openly talk about rape and stillbirth and these things I think another thing as a thing that you just I mean movies just didn’t really show women talking about openly for most of the history of movies. Yeah I just visually I’ve just always kind of carried away by this film in relationship to all the actors it’s like the theatricality of these performances at times is part of it for me.

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S3: Yeah it’s not a Naturalist style of acting and it’s not a Naturalist style of cinematography even though it’s all about nature. Right. Right. I mean there’s not any attempt to create those codes of naturalism and realism that we’re familiar with in cinema. I mean you know the idea of pillow shots like I think it always with Ozu that you most associate the pillow shot which is this sort of moment that you glance away at something in nature. I mean this is the typical use of the pillow shot right like you’re following a domestic interior and then you see a bird on the telephone line outside right. You take a moment to look at that bird. But this and this movie is more like piles of pillows upon pillows I mean it’s more the pillow shots that tell the story than the dialogue in between. Absolutely. So there will be I don’t know somebody talking on the soundtrack about one thing and then you just see for example that beautiful moment where the three women walking on the beach find the old umbrella. Yeah. The old sort of moth eaten umbrella in the surf and they just open it up and start to sort of. They don’t dance. I think they just sort of walk under it but it’s a very dance like kind of sequence and we don’t need any explanation of like why is the umbrella there. No. What does it mean to them. Do they keep it. We don’t know it’s just it’s almost a actually to relate it back to be on say again a little bit of music video logic at that moment.

S6: You can totally see why it would appeal to someone doing more musical treatment of something like this. Absolutely. And man I just think also just about. I mean in terms of the amount of money that she got from PBS to make it. I just think about how thoroughly costume you know just in every sense of period detail. This movie disrupts what I think of normally when I think of period detail. You know it’s a movie about slavery that is not about showing slavery but even in the context of films about slavery. It just allows for such a wide variety of black people even even like the combination of from the north vs. on this island. I’ve been to the mainland vs. haven’t just what appear to be simple contrasts that the movie imbues with these very heavy thorough sensitive political and spiritual meaning. All these things is just a movie that has a lot going on which is why I think I come back to it every time I wanted a it feel shorter than I remember and b I feel like I see things that I didn’t see before. It’s one of those.

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S3: Well it was something that you saw this time this time around that you had not seen before.

S6: For one thing the shot of the tree that I was describing I’d completely forgotten or if I’d seen that. I just don’t remember that. And I also overlooked I think the roles of people like you know Hagar and others that were like really important to my other watches or the movie. But I think I had I not really notice how essential they are to the ideas of the movie. Things like that you know just like things about people that I don’t think I’d notice before. I think I mentioned that I didn’t know that yellow marries the woman that she brings with her as is her lover.

S3: Well how do you what’s the evidence for that in the movie. I mean I didn’t get that the first time I saw it either and after that I had read more about the film so I knew it for that reason. But yeah. But other than the fact that they sort of travel together and they sort of snuggle a lot but as you pointed out all the women in this movie are always sort of lying around you know in beautiful heaps of white dresses. Yeah. How would you know.

S5: I think I know through the pairings and the contrast whenever I’m like working through with you I always just sort of like okay what are the things that feel like opposites or like pairs etc.. So for me it’s the four people on the boat and the two couples. It’s two couples facing each other to me and the fact that the woman that she brings with her is very much not of the family but would otherwise really have no other reason to be there if not to be a sort of intimate support for yellow marry. It’s things like that. It’s really it’s really not anything that they do together because although Mary is really you know it’s family time so mostly she’s interacting with people that she hasn’t seen in years. But also just the sense that I get from the lovers performance is also that she is very much someone who like showed up at a family reunion and he’s like seeing all the drama play out but it’s like OK. I mean I mean and during one of the things we talked about at the climax there it’s intercut with shots of her. Like looking on maybe at them I’m not sure but sort of running away. She’s always kind of at the periphery.

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S3: And then of course at the end spoiler alert Mary decides surprisingly to stay behind with Nana and her so her lover departs in the boat and there’s a very kind of inscrutable expression on her face. You know you have no idea how hard it is for her to leave.

S8: Yeah and I’m I’m sure part of the reason this this is merge as well as is just I can’t imagine like adding queerness explicitly to this context. I mean there’s enough going on religiously in this movie that who knows who knows what saying that or making that explicit would do the figure of a lover is a character that I think about in my head a lot now that I have established through reading and watching the movie over and over again. That’s who she is. Any other movie I think would use the outsider to be our way into something. And she’s the outsider who’s not a weigh in at all. She’s firmly outside and that’s what we’re witnessing like a blackness that has no proximity to the blackness that we see on this island which is fascinating which is sort of like me I totally did not know much about like the Gullah islands and Gullah culture except for I mean I sent this to you like the Nickelodeon show that I grew up on.

S9: Oh yeah. Go go go.

S3: I left because I didn’t remember it at all. I was too old to be watching Nickelodeon by the time it was on but it ran for four years or so.

S5: You know those shows that ran for four years but you see them in reruns so much that you think they ran 10 years. I very much one of those shows for me and it is remarkable to think back to the fact that in the early arcs in this century that I was watching a show as a kid about Gullah culture before this movie ever was made.

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S8: Yeah I had no awareness of this movie as a kid really but Gilligan’s Island was that show. I guess also you know Gullah culture. I think more mainstream Porgy and Bess is about Gullah culture and the musical is written more in dialect than the auto commentary movie which I finally just saw very rarely screened but something that they did with that movie is they had people not speak in the dialect. That was something that they just felt like in a movie would not really translate. So it’s interesting that Julie Dash I think doesn’t doesn’t avoid it. She has multiple languages. She has a lot going on.

S3: Can I tell you had a connection between Gilligan’s Island the Nickelodeon Kids show and daughters of the dust. It’s that Ronald days who was the co creator of Gilligan’s Island and plays the dad right. It’s a show about a family that lives on this island and the two parents are also the two co creators of the show. Rollo and Natalie days. So Ronald D was the coach the Gullah dialect coach for this movie which makes sense. If he had he had grown up in that culture he’d written a book on it. You know him introducing the show was sort of part of trying to get Gullah culture into the mainstream. And and so he was the natural to call upon if you wanted somebody to coach you in the dialect.

S5: That’s fascinating. Yeah I mean watching that show was how I learned about. I mean I had had gumbo before but I didn’t know the history of it and watching that show was actually how I learned about history and something that’s funny that comes up and daughters of the dust is yellow Mary talks about getting gumbo and Savannah but they don’t put all the ingredients in it things like that that have been sort of ricocheting through my own life and gun culture sort of comes up and you know Geechee culture is also called comes up here and there but the only sustained experiences I had were Gullah Gullah Island and daughters of the dust really I never seen Porgy and Bess performed onstage as an opera.

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S8: So I really didn’t have much exposure until this but this is the kind of movie that you want more people to see because of the way it opens up curiosity about this world. I mean it’s a bit tragic to go look at the demographic specifics of this island now and I find that it’s like two percent black which is crazy. But you know Nana was right. I don’t think she is predicting do bear out her sense that there’s something being left behind is not wrong and it’s something that Julie Dash is addressing from the future that there is a deep spiritual ancestral loss when people move. When people leave this island but also that leaving this island is a way for yes. I kind of progress a kind of social progress in a harsher context.

S3: Yeah and the movie very much lives in that paradox like nobody’s right. You know everybody is messed up in their own way. And you know there’s something stubborn about Nana refusing to leave but there’s also something beautiful about her refusing to leave.

S8: It really is beautiful. It’s I’m really moved by it. I always have been. And also just to get back to this detail about the hair from her mother. You know the proximity to slavery as an object that she has. I think it’s because it’s at 90 No. 2 You also just confronted with oh this is a period where people are alive who were slaves which is a wild thing to think about and just really clarify is also a lot of the fear that the characters in this movie are expressing but also the same stuff that makes them want to modernize right. It’s like modernizing to get as far away from slavery as possible including all the things we did to survive slavery through you know are talismans and all these things.

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S3: It’s a pretty powerful thing that I think Julie Dash is really a number of things that she’s put her finger on and really explored in this movie in ways that just yeah I don’t think a classical narrative could do with this movie’s doing well since we’re talking about the historical resonances that come up related to this place and the island that they’re on I want to talk about the late maybe most painful scene in the movie which is the sort of reconciliation between Eli and Ula which happens at Igbo landing. So Igbo lending is the site of this real historical event that happened in 1883 which is recounted in this somewhat oblique way but is you get the basics of it. I think it’s the unborn child who’s narrating it in fact isn’t her voiceover I think so. And the details of this incident are just that of a shipload of West African enslaved people was being brought over and this one particular group of Ibo tribes people who were known for resisting enslavement and really just not being willing to live in captivity all committed mass suicide. There was a mutiny on the ship as it was approaching the land they drowned some of the slave holders who had been bringing them over and then a group of people the number is still disputed to this day but a group of somewhere between a dozen and a hundred people just walked into the water and as the narrator tells us in the movie they because they had chains on very easily drowned. And so that spot is only visited once in the course of the movie there is an actual sign labelling that places as equal landing and we haven’t heard at that point from Eli for that long Ula has been a part of the group of women who are sitting around fixing the gumbo walking on the beach having these conversations. We followed her story more than we have hears and all we really know about him is that he’s still really anguished and messed up about this situation that he doesn’t know who the father of his soon to be born baby is and the fact that they have the reconciliation that they do have and I do think of it as a reconciliation because at the end of it he does sort of run to her and embrace her and even sort of puts his head up against her belly you know as if he’s kind of accepting the child as well. But the fact that that all happens at Igbo landing is just an extraordinary narrative choice on Julie Dash’s part and there’s this never explained but you get it completely there’s this. So again sort of talismanic piece of art this wooden man that’s floating in the water like a person who’s carved out of this log and and it seems to be some sort of memorial that that just floats there in the water where were the slaves drowned and that history is explained to us in suitably the voice of the unborn child right who’s also as we’ve established the ancestor. But it’s going to that place and acknowledging that historical trauma that somehow makes them able to get past their own trauma. My Gran said it.

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S12: Olive live and work.

S13: Every last man woman and child. No you wouldn’t think did get very fast seeing and he was what a day was walking on. But. All that. Porn on ponder uncle on their wrist and fast and run the neck like dog collar. The chained and stuck doors you but not. It just kept well. Like the water solid ground.

S8: And I think so much of this movie is about getting past trauma in a way that again they give to this movie in this slavery context just it’s hard to think about a film that isn’t in some way about the legacy of slavery that has no violence. It’s real violence. It has happened. But you’re seeing people process it through their own you know spiritual political.

S3: You’re right. Right. And that even occurred to me. But all the trauma in this movie has already happened.

S4: But it’s all very alive still. You know it’s more than just talking about it. It is partially the structure I think moving towards these huge breaks and reconciliations and conflicts over the meat of everything the movie is about. But I think it’s also just you know so many movies would have had flashbacks to the sexual assault or would have shown us the guy without necessarily making it apparent to the other character.

S3: There’s no white people in the entire movie in which we again must have been quite something to pitch for all those years that she was going around pitching.

S5: Totally. I mean famously everyone thinks about that moment and told he was a slave or Brad Pitt’s husband a moment of exactly the kind of thing this movie is not doing.

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S7: But yeah it’s just so powerful to me that she so carefully invokes all of this and has the characters speak it all out.

S8: But it’s not about reproducing that trauma visually it is just about everything else that happens around it including the ways that people process and get over it. I think about this movie with like Toni Morrison’s Beloved a lot in part because it just tells the story of slavery through generations of mothers and dealing with this. You know this the assaults of slavery et cetera in ways that just make it all very very tactile and real and felt to me but that just aren’t about I mean Bill blubber does have the big flashback where you go back and see the thing that happened that incites the baby ghost. But it’s not about just reproducing that. And I think that so many of the things in this genre if you’re in a college honor are just movies about slavery historically just don’t know how to deal with the problem of violence and that line between reproducing it and doing something critical with it. And this movie really figures that out. I think you know exactly what it’s about.

S3: I can say so much about that that I won’t get into about five years a slave and other recent movies where yeah there’s kind of a need to restage it almost like a compulsive need to restage some kind of scene of white on black violence. Yeah. Right. And this movie never gives into that need but yet it’s haunted by that violence.

S8: Yet every moment and a very real way. And I think that’s still something that puts this movie out ahead of many other films for me just that I walk away with a sense of the people and the culture and the trauma too. But when I think about the movie I don’t replay the trauma in my head which is a powerful thing for this movie to not have me do because yeah I tell you as a slave and I think about Lupita getting beaten very badly at the end of that film and it’s the first thing that comes to mind with that movie it is not automatically a bad thing for a film to do. There is something to be said absolutely for credibly and with integrity recreating these moments of history because that’s what it is. But I have to say I like it to if the extra method of it being about working through the trauma that to me is what’s important.

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S3: Do you have anything to say before we wrap about the very last scene in the movie and we’ve already mentioned the fact that Iona gets to go off with her. You know Julian last child lover we’ve mentioned that yellow Mary by surprise decides to stay right she’s been one of the people who most represents modernity in the outside throughout this whole film. Yeah. And and yet she decides to stay with Nana at the end. And also you learn Eli decide to stay which I had not the whole time that you’ve been hearing this child’s voice. I’m assuming that she was part of the migration and you know that she grew up in the new world but in fact you’re hearing from somebody who is still on Gullah Island telling us this story.

S6: I mean the mixed ways that I feel about that moment and about leaving or staying. I feel like the movie really makes me sit with my ambivalence and the surprises in terms of who stays really compel me to think more about the value in staying because I’m never really feeling dismissive of the island and its culture but I am I think for most of the movie thinking there’s something for you out there in the world as bad as it is. But in the end it’s the people that I most sympathize with choosing to stay that really does a number on how I conceive of the movie. It really sort of makes me shift a bit to really be less certain that modernity I mean as dangerous as that we all know it proves to be it just makes me shift away from that and a very powerful way I have to say.

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S3: Yeah I mean the movie really leaves you in that split. You the viewer left almost like in the space of water between the land boat you know torn between the two. And then Julie Dash revisited this world in a novel she wrote a not a novelization of the movie but more like a sequel revisiting the community 20 years later which I think also has a sort of anthropological character who visits to kind of document the culture. I would love to read more about how she envisioned this world continuing after 1982. Me too. All right so swerving sharply away from the culture. I want to do a movie next time. That’s from a decade we haven’t talked about yet the 1930s Great Decade. Yeah hugely transitional right. I mean the first decade of sound there’s so much going on like you could do gangster movies of the 30s right. I mean musicals of the 30s would be huge.

S8: I hope to do both of those at some point kind of a huge era for me. I think one of the best decades for Hollywood movies it was the 30s.

S9: Well I mean as someone who’s writing right now in the 20s a part of me wants to say this is the coming of sound ruined everything.

S5: Basically I just mean not the 60s 70s with the way we were always taught to think. I really think that 20s 30s.

S3: Yeah. Oh no. There’s incredible incredible filmmaking going on in that decade. And I thought that maybe we would revisit the genre or visit for the first time. For us the genre of screwball can’t wait. Since we’ve already talked about George Cukor and Howard Hawks not their screwball comedies but other movies they made it mean they’re some of the great screwball masters. But we’ll leave them aside for right now. And I thought we would do Leo McCaffrey’s the awful truth. We can’t wait.

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S4: Kari Grant and Irene Dunne I haven’t seen yet. It’s one of the big Cary Grant movies that I haven’t seen yet actually.

S3: And it’s really sort of one of the defining. I think it was one of the earlier screwball movies it’s 1937. It’s when Cary Grant sort of found his voice. You know if he came started to become the Cary Grant that we all know and love today and screwball vigor. So yeah. And it’s the director of Duck Soup. And one other great comedy masterpiece of the 1930s. So I think we cannot go wrong with the awful truth.

S9: I could use a little comedy. Yeah honestly yeah it’s been heavy the past few shows as good as a laugh.

S3: So if you want to watch the awful truth in advance of our discussion of it in two weeks there’s lots of places to find it. It’s on Amazon Prime. It’s on YouTube. I Tunes Google Play and it’s a criterion classic film films so if you have criterion streaming by some means or another you have a means to see it. I don’t think the awful truth is going to be too hard for people to track down.

S8: No it’s pretty famous which is one of the huge blind spots of my film do I have to say. Well I feel like me about a lot of 30 stocks I’m glad we’re doing the 30s.

S3: Yeah they were coming thick and fast there at the end of realities. I mean there were a lot of these great moves were made the same year as each other. You know like topper and the awful truth came out the same year well and then you get to 1939 where like every great movie for 30 years all came together right. Yes I’m excited for this one so the awful truth in two weeks.

S1: Our producer and engineer today was Chao too if you want to write us a note about movies you would like us to flashback on in the future. You can email us at flashback. Thanks so much for listening and for being a sleepless subscriber. We will be here to talk about the awful truth.