Black Feminist Filmmaking 20 Years after “Daughters of the Dust”May 21, 2012
Two decades ago, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust became the first film directed by an African American woman to be nationally distributed in the United States. Set in 1902, Daughters of the Dust takes place on an island off the coast of South Carolina on one of the many spots that claim to be Ibo Landing — the site where, legend has it, a ship of kidnapped Africans refused their fate as slaves and drowned themselves in their chains. The nonlinear narrative of the movie follows a day and a half in the lives of the Peazant family, most of whom plan to relocate to the mainland United States to seek better economic opportunity. The Peazants are having one last family get-together on the beach before the departure, and the clash between old and new values plays out in the drama of the extended family.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that this work is still one of the most important films in black feminist cinema. Critics, scholars, and audiences love Daughters of the Dust for its unique structure — which thwarts the traditional narrative form that feminists have argued objectifies and degrades women — its focus on black women’s stories, its critical look at the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and its affirmation of the history of the Gullah culture, which still exists today in the coastal Southeast United States.
Much of the conversation around the Daughters of the Dust anniversary has rightly addressed how revolutionary Dash’s film was and is, but many are also asking an equally important question. How far has black women’s filmmaking come in 20 years?
Arguably, not very far. While some mainstream films, such as Precious, For Colored Girls, and The Help have featured black women’s stories, few such films are written or directed by black women, and very few depart from the types of narratives or structures that Dash eschewed in her most famous film. To be sure, there is still amazing work happening in and outside of film schools globally, including places like Howard University. But for the most part, mainstream cinema still gets black women’s stories wrong. Even in 2012, the experiences of African Americans and women are still largely ignored aside from two months a year, including in popular culture.
Work like Dash’s pushes the boundaries of the Hollywood rules about who can tell stories, what kinds of experiences can be heard, who is considered beautiful or smart or strong, what being a man or a woman means, and what kinds of films can reach audiences. We’ve seen some amazing victories for women filmmakers in the past few years. In 2012, Ava Duvernay was the first black woman to win the Best Director award at Sundance. But only four women have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and none of them were women of color. And overall, the kinds of films we see at the box office today — even at smaller, art-house theaters, largely feature the same kinds of actors playing the same kinds of roles in the same kinds of stories.
So let’s take the occasion of the Daughters of the Dust anniversary to reevaluate what film can be and do and to start demanding more of the film industry. Make yourself heard by supporting independent filmmakers, organizing or attending screenings of movies that have an important women’s message, and talking about what kinds of lessons mainstream film is teaching us about all women.