Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, was also something of an amateur filmmaker, documenting everyday life and work in the American South as part of anthropological and ethnographic studies. These films have been preserved by the Library of Congress, and roughly thirty minutes of the footage is available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming, split between two Kino Lorber box sets: Pioneers of African-American Cinema (2016) and Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (2018). These 16mm films, shot in Florida between 1927-1929 and South Carolina in 1940, did not include synchronized sound, although in some cases audio recordings were being collected at the same time as part of the historic project in the 1930s and 40s to document and preserve American folk music. One of the films, Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940, is presented in the Kino African-American Cinema set with some of these recordings, not synced perfectly but just well enough to elicit the atmosphere of the church. It’s this last film in the collection that ties in with Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, a historical fiction about the Gullah community of the Sea Islands of southern South Carolina, a region of which the town of Beaufort (pronounced Byoo-fert) is a part. Both Hurston and Dash produced works of cultural memory and expression that stand out in an industry that, whether it was the 20s or the 90s, had little time for people like them.
When she made the films — directing small crews and often participating in activities with the subjects — Hurston surely had in mind only a supplement to the broader research that eventually produced the article “Hoodoo in America” (1931, The Journal of American Folklore) and the book Mules and Men (1935). Nevertheless, however modest the films may be, they fulfill a central role of nonfiction film, which is to present life truthfully. The footage of children at play is a particular delight, with the small performers displaying both an ease with and a degree of curiosity about the camera. Hurston’s portraits of adults, such as a woman on a porch rocking chair and a man chopping wood, are a little more difficult for me to read. What they might be showing is a certain coolness or even suspicion toward the project, but it’s just as likely that they’re posing, displaying the kind of presence and dignity that they couldn’t get from the circumscribed roles available to Black people in the mainstream cinema of the time. If that’s the case, then it can truly be said that Hurston had a gift for attaining rapport with her cinematic subjects, the kind that’s necessary to getting something real on film.
A milestone in the independent film boom of the late 80s and early 90s, Daughters of the Dust gained the distinction of being the first film directed by an African-American woman to receive a wide theatrical release. The movie’s plot is simplicity itself, much in the vein of Meet Me in St. Louis: it’s the story of a family dealing with the predicament of whether or not they should move to another part of the country. Of course, the situation of the Peazant family in Julie Dash’s film is significantly more fraught than the well-off white family in Vincente Minnelli’s nostalgic vision. As a result, the spotty narrative houses a thematic framework of lofty ambition. Onscreen text at the movie’s beginning lays out the situation neatly: the Gullah people living on islands — members of the African diaspora and descendants of enslaved people — exist in a liminal state between their ancestral home and the nation where they were forced to live. Unlike so many other African-Americans whose cultural memory was completely stolen from them, these communities were able to hold on to certain cultural markers, from religion to food to speech. Over time, these holdovers were blended with the customs and language of the region to form a new, hybrid culture.
Naturally, the traditions of the past become endangered unless each ensuing generation works to keep them alive, and this is the crux of the film’s conflict. The family matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), is perhaps the only fully dedicated traditionalist in the film. She has to contend with two separate but united incursions: Christianity, in the form of granddaughter Viola Peazant (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), and modern secularism, in the form of photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks), both of which are introduced to the community with evangelical zeal. These figures are by no means villains, however. The embrace of tradition and memory is itself complicated. The youngest characters in the film, which takes place in 1902, are just a couple generations removed from the back-breaking labor of slavery. One of the reasons that the African cultural memory is so fresh in this particular place is that, due to the semi-isolation of these islands, the slave trade continued in secret for decades after its official abolition. The younger characters seek to migrate north for the sake of better economic opportunities and less dangerous circumstances than they experienced in the Jim Crow South. They express the eternal hope of pilgrims that the place where they’re going will be a New World.
Dash captures this small society in a mystical, languid fashion: women in white dresses leaning against tree trunks, a slow boat ride down the river. The evocative location cinematography is courtesy of Arthur Jafa, with his first director of photography credit. Along with Nana, the other most important voice heard on the soundtrack belongs to the Unborn Child, who narrates events from an unspecified future date while also making the occasional ghostly appearance in 1902, becoming visible to several of the characters (including Mr. Snead). The child and Nana combine to make the film’s point of view that of the irreducible continuum of history. The old teach the young; the young remember the old. Nana carries memories of her mother, born in Africa. The child, not yet born to Eli and Eula Peazant (Adisa Anderson and Alva Rogers) in 1902, could hypothetically still be alive, within the universe of the film, in 1991. As Viola says, quoting Shakespeare, “What’s past is prologue.”
Indeed, we can look at Hurston’s Commandment Keeper Church film as evidence that the efforts of someone like Viola to spread Christianity to the community were very successful. The energy and ecstasy of the church services depicted in the film, one indoors and the other outside in front of a pier, are still electric when viewed today. The emotional outpourings, the dancing and the sweat of the Black church have since moved into the realm of cliché in popular culture, so much so that returning to the unfiltered source is an education. So too is Daughters of the Dust, a rare look at a unique culture, presented in a lyrical way that’s attuned to the rhythms and mysteries of folklore. Whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, above and beyond the achievement and the burden of being “first,” Hurston’s and Dash’s films are invaluable testaments to lives that mattered.