Julie Dash is a writer, producer and director and was the first African-American female to have a feature length film in cinema. Daughters of the Dust (1991), a film which is set in 1902 on the South Carolina island of St Helena, where descendants of slaves have lived away from the 20th century of the US. Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s sixth solo project, Lemonade(2016), was released through a world premiere on HBO. Partially music video partially nonnarrative independent film, Lemonade(2016), won a Grammy award for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Both are non-linear narratives with the creators being African-American women. This essay will show how Daughters of the Dust (DoD) influenced the aesthetics and politics of Beyonce’s Lemonade. How both films voice issues that deal with history, ancestry and black womanhood. As well as also exploring the biases of Hollywood and how the two films challenge racism and misogyny in cinema.
Daughters of the Dust (1991) gathered momentum in 1991 and it was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2004. The film exemplifies oppositional cinema which sets itself in opposition to the dominant standard expectations of cinema. By rejecting the traditional, linear storytelling of the west in favour of something more lyrical. DoD is a film centred around the female afrocentric perspective. All of Dash’s work contains a form of re-imagining of depictions of black women. In her first short film called ‘Illusions’ she explicitly challenges the racism and misogyny of mainstream cinema of 1942. DoD compasses the cultural history of the US, it mentions the history of disregarding black women, the antilynching movement, the history of the interconnectivity of native Americans and African Americans. As well as all the diverse religions and significance of oral traditions to African Americans.
A film which is incredibly innovative, DoD is a story of the great immigration to the north. The topic of female governance and matriarchy is not clearly deliberated over, but community and matriarchy are key themes in the film. The island is occupied by resilient and proficient women, and consequently the social order of the land is a matriarchy. The women not only live but thrive in the film, they all respect and admire their matriarch. The clash between the longstanding world and the contemporary world in DoD is most interestingly understood in relation to ancestry. Venetria K Patton says of Nana Peazant that “these elders take on the role of culture bearers by ensuring that the younger generation maintains some connection with their ancestral roots because […] ancestors are a source of strength” (Patton 29) Nana as the matriarch, battles to convince her family to regard and appreciate the African and Caribbean spiritual rituals she takes part in; these incorporate a glass bottle tree which she preserves in reminiscence to those who have passed and a floating wooden sculpture to defend and protect the residents of the village. Nana represents the link to authority, the link to the ancestors who transmit ancestral wisdom and culture and pass it down.
One of the ways ancestry is portrayed in DoD, is through Eula Peazant, who is conflicted after being raped and getting pregnant. She also is struggling with the possibility that her husband might not be the father. The re-counting of the story is through the unborn child, she is shown to us before her birth, directing and leading her family. In Lemonade’s first chapter called ‘Intuition’, Beyoncé says that “the past and the future merge to meet us here, what luck, what a curse” (Lemonade, 2016) and the audience understands that past and the future are dominant through-out the narration. In DoDthere are resemblances of this notion. At the start of the film written on the screen is “the Gullah recalled, remembered and recollected what their ancestors brought from Africa” (DoD,1991) The beginning of the films starts with two members of the Peazant family Yellow Mary and Viola, going from mainland America to Ibo Landing which has existed since the abolition of slavery. The ‘ancestors’ play a significant part in both films.
In DoD, spirituality serves them but not only as a motivating factor but also as a way of sustaining balance through difficult times. A scarce number of the family stay true to traditions of the old ways. Several are enticed by Christianity, the mainland faith. The immigrants of the Gullah islands are not able to find the happiness and treasures on the mainland that they anticipated. The philosophies that were handed down through generations are swiftly discarded. Laura Mulvey’s, “Visual and other pleasures” states that “alternative cinema provides a space for cinema to be born which is radical in both political and an aesthetic sense” DoD transcends out-of-date and overbearing systems and the patriarchal order of Hollywood and the lenses it sees black people through.
David Bordwell’s Poetics of Cinema states, “treating every cut or camera movement[…} as a reinforcement of subject positioning” and that “this principle suggest some hypotheses about the nature of narrative norms in Hollywood” DoD explores the lack of representation with real depictions of black people, it includes multiple voice-overs, and multiple point-of-view shots and wide-angles with deep-focus shots. As well as having the camera be angled inside groups as opposed to the outside looking in, additionally includes the oﬀ-centre framing of characters. Distinct in the history of African Americans women’s activism is the spiritual promises and their dependence on ‘God’ to guide them on their journey towards freedom. Grant, Jacquelyn’s ‘White women’s Christ and black women’s Jesus’ states that “black women must recognise that racism, sexism and classism each have lives of their own, no one form of oppression is eliminated with the destruction of the other.” The intersectionality of all three presented in DoD explore how black women are going against the Hollywood’s narrative norms.
Lemonade acquires historical elements about Africa, slavery, neo-liberalism and at beginning of the 1970s the lack of investment of black neighbourhoods. It doesn’t fear depicting images of the police murdering African-Americans. One particular scene shows the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown with portraits of their children. Beyonce recounts “grandmother…the alchemist [who] spun gold out of this hard life” (Lemonade, 2016) which demonstrates the importance of matriarchs. As a consequence of their deaths the hashtag ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ was created through social media in 2013 and was led by three African- American women.
In ‘How To Read a Film’ by James Monaco, he states that “Film utilizes a set of musical concepts expressed in visual terms: the melody, harmony and rhythm are long established values in film art” and that it “should be equal of image in the cinematic equation, not the subservient” Lemonade is arranged around representational headings, dealing with topics of black individuality and adultery, race, religion. The initial half emphases the individual, the concluding part on society. This ambiguity generates an otherworldly effect. Reflected sets of songs, explained from the film, include “Sorrow” and “Love Drought,” which include busy and fast drumming. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Freedom” both are melancholic and have church- inspired riffs.
Bell Hooks explains how black women had to assume “a posture of subordination, they submitted to cinemas’ capacity to seduce and betray. They were cinematically “gaslighted” [..] to imagine themselves transformed, turn into white women portrayed on the screen.” Placing images of women not having an active role but rather a passive one, creates a step further into understanding the construction of representation. At the centre of established depictions of black women, includes almost always some sort of violence. Opposing to this, many black women audiences closed those images out, and permitted cinema no meaning to their lives. The lack of the reflection on the reality that black women face, and intersectionality meant that many had to transform into a new identity to be able to enjoy the films. Additional indication of this is with the use voiceover from a Malcom X speech in 1962 where he says, “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman” (Lemonade, 2016). In an interview with The New Yorker, director Melina Matsoukas disclosed insight into Beyoncé’s incentive for Lemonade: “She wanted to show the historical impact of slavery on black love, and what it has done to the black family. And black men and women — how we’re almost socialized not to be together.” Beyoncé speaks of the joys and the pains of black womanhood just as Dash does in DoD. Both Lemonade and DoD accurately allows black women to see themselves in an authentic form and the strength and resilience of African-American woman.
Many of the aesthetics of the two films are similar, there are indications of black womanhood and the collective relationships between black women as well as the celebration of the variety in blackness. This is explored through the varies presentations of traditional black female hairstyles that are illustrated as well as the selection of skin tones displayed. A particular example of Lemonade taking much of its inspiration form DoD is a scene where there is a clear reference to Mary and Trula in the willow, black women in white flowing dresses sit around a giant tree. The costumes of DoD where also a sizeable influence on the costumes of Lemonade, the clean and white period outfits where modernised to create a renovated version of Dash’s film.
The two films are an ode to the American South, the land where the enslaved Africans were taken to. DoD was filmed on the South Carolina Coast, while Lemonade was filmed in the scenery of Louisiana. The images of trees appears in both films representing the power of community and African- American women. DoD uses the descriptions of trees to showcase the importance of nature in the lives of black women. The figurative significance of trees is furthermore detailed with Erskine, stating that “the [African] church embraced the spirit […] and taught that one could meet the spirit under a tree” (Erskine 1). In support with this, Lemonade’s final chapter ‘Redemption’ displays a collection of black females seated around a tree, the audience hears Beyoncé’s narration of the method and process to make Lemonade.
The women of DoD swim, declare and play along the extended island beaches, in comparison to Beyoncé who dives into the underwater bedroom, challenging her concealed fears and doubts. Other women in Lemonade gather in water together, suggesting a re-creation of self. In DoD the only way to reach the island is through the water. Yellow Mary takes this excursion and conclusively determines that she can’t find it in her to let go of tradition, so she chooses to stay. Additionally, stunning long shots of water. There are many images of various characters throughout the length of the film, walking to the water’s edge or into the water in their ordinary garments; despite being forced to wear clothes by the society, they still have a resilient relationship to nature and their environment. Another spectacular image in Lemonade is a group of women in white dresses “wading in the water,” reverberating the Christian custom of baptism but also resonating the ways African-Americans escaped slavery through water, towards the unspoken promise of rebirth and regeneration beneath the ocean’s waves. Water could be seen as a direction to the emerging of an identity- in both films. The representation of multiple traditions from varies cultures, Lemonade entirely embraces them all. Beyoncé in one scene emerges as the goddess of Orisha, and then as a girl in a Mardi Gras outfit who is Native American while preforming a ceremony. Both films include religions which worship ancestors, an awareness of the spirits of the dead and their connections with the living and also the importance and value of community. These films talk more about community rather than individuality which is different to a lot of the Hollywood we see.
To conclude, Lemonade not only cinematically depicts shared politics but also alludes to appropriating the same visual aesthetics as DoD. Lemonade investigates similar traditional and thematic threads, while DoD inspects the black reimagining of the African diaspora. DoD embodies the potential for narrative cinema by reclaiming African-American history and culture by exploring the intersection of gender and race.
“Daughters of the Dust. Dir. Julie Dash.” Geechee Girls Production, 1991. DVD.
“Lemonade. Dir. Joseph, Kahlil, and Beyonce Knowles-Carter.” Parkwood Entertainment & Columbia Records, 2016.
Grant, Jacquelyn. “White women’s Christ and black women’s Jesus.” Women’s studies in religion (2007).
David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008)
James Monaco, How To Read a Film (Oxford: O.U.P, 2009)
Hooks, Bell. “The oppositional gaze: Black female spectators.” The feminism and visual culture reader (2003)
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Visual and other pleasures. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1989.
Erskine, Noel L. Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Black Women and the Sacred: With “Lemonade,” Beyoncé Takes Us to Church https://religiondispatches.org/black-women-and-the-sacred-beyonce-takes-us-to-church/
The Provocateur Behind Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Issa Rae. The New Yorker
Friedberg, Anne. “A denial of difference: Theories of cinematic identification.” Psychoanalysis and cinema (1990): 36–45.