IN HER debut as a feature film maker, Julie Dash offers in "Daughters of the Dust" a welcome respite from the desperate images of gang violence that currently dominate black cinema.
The movie, which opens today at the Senator Theatre in Baltimore, finds its resonance in the struggles of African Americans viewed from a historical perspective, just as last year's urban dramas -- Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" and Mario Van Peebles' "New Jack City" -- found theirs in forceful, tragic portrayals of contemporary inner-city despair.
Dash's poetic approach takes black filmmaking a significant step further. The film records the culture of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The Sea Gullahs are direct descendants of African slaves who worked the islands' rich cotton, indigo and rice plantations during the 18th and 19th centuries. Isolated from the mainland by heat, malaria, humidity and the sea, they were able to hold on to many of their ancient African customs and pass them on to their children.
Dash, in turn, passes this legacy on to a new generation of filmgoers in this hauntingly beautiful work, which is the first offering of the Baltimore International Film Festival.
Set in 1902, the movie offers a portrayal of America's Industrial Age as it is alternately embraced and resisted by a family named Peazant on the tiny island of Ibo Landing. The action takes place on the day the Peazant clan gathers for a picnic, a sort of ritual "last supper" to mark the departure of most of the family for the "promised land" of the North.
Nana Peazant, the family elder, adamantly refuses to forsake the land of her ancestors and urges her children not to forget their past as they pursue an uncertain future.
The theme of the conflict between tradition and progress, past and present, is woven together through the narration of a Peazant child who has yet to be born. It is the spirit of this unborn child that old Nana Peazant calls on to help keep the family together in its time of crisis.
The unborn girl-child, who makes fleeting appearances in the film as a 5-year-old, was conceived when her mother Eula, wife of Nana Peazant's son, was raped by a white man. She thus becomes a passionate metaphor for the dichotomy of the African-American experience.
As its title indicates, "Daughters" is highly symbolic and driven by strong, colorful women. While the gumbo for the picnic simmers, we meet them all: the outspoken and ambitious Haagar Peazant, the "ruined" but worldly Yellow Mary and the god-fearing Viola. Each woman in her own way argues eloquently for the need to escape the past and transcend the present by seeking the future.
It soon becomes clear that Dash has no intention of telling her story in the conventional manner; rather, she presents fluid images for her audience to savor and interpret. The story's meandering style may be confusing at times, and the character's heavy Gullah accents occasionally require subtitles, but the lush cinematography lures the viewer into another time and place not easily forgotten.
The photography for "Daughters of the Dust" won the cinematography award for drama at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. The ethereal soundtrack is an amalgam of African, Middle Eastern and Indian musical influences.
The appearance of "Daughters of the Dust" is surprising at a time when Hollywood shows little interest in producing anything except commercial hits. Despite a comparatively low $1 million budget, the movie is as resonant as the novels of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.
With no help from Hollywood, Dash spent 10 years researching "Daughters." She financed the film with her own money and with grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and "American Playhouse" in association with the Public Broadcasting Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "American Playhouse" plans to broadcast the film after its theatrical run, which seems to be slowly gaining momentum.
Dash's engraved invitation to a remote corner of African-American history is not for die-hard "Terminator" fans. It demands attention and a measure of thoughtfulness to see beyond the beautiful, impressionistic photography and the surreal storytelling to the eternal truths that history reveals.
Let's hope her work is a sign of the variety of things to come from black filmmakers.
Karen Hunter is assistant features editor of The Sun.