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To Breathe a Life—Introducing: Daughters of the Dust

Updated: Aug 3

To say we are living in historic times is…an understatement. We are witnessing one of, if not the most significant, global shifts in human history. It’s not just the pandemic—an entire way of life is transforming across the globe as old systemic structures are collapsing and new ones are yet to be constructed. While we do not know exactly what these new structures will look like, we feel hints of them: freeways of commerce are now wavelengths of data, the tradition of work may be unrecognizable in its new form, currencies and finance are going digital, and tolerance will be a foundational societal value going forward (let's just act as if on that last one).


A small act it is to choose a film. The Battery asked me to select one that reflects on current affairs in our world. We in the United States just witnessed, watched, or participated in the largest mass protests in our nation’s history. Film played a role—the visual, moving image; the mechanical, reproducible art of digital pixels (formerly light waves) transversing through the ether to our various screens—both the screens we watch and the ones we replay in our minds--played a pivotal role.


I am referring to two videos that appeared on May 25th, a day that will be remembered for sparking mass action against racial injustice, a day when I celebrated my birthday with my family sheltered, protected, and not yet aware of the historic significance of this date. Two videos emerged—one of a death of an innocent man by the state apparatus (George Floyd) and one calling on that apparatus to punish another innocent man (The Central Park Karen).


These “guerilla” videos, films in their own right, show in stark relief our nation’s challenges, whose significance I will detail below. They tell a story. We are witnessing the purging of a history of our nation that isn’t pretty and has never been dealt with in an empathetic, emotional, and sincere manner. As long as we refuse to purge this history it will fester and emerge with periodic outbreaks.


It’s unclear right now if the virus of racism will be more of our nation’s undoing than the viral pandemic but we may have reached a tipping point where actions are brought to the light and dealt with to inspire a national healing. While policies will help, more will be needed to deal with the pain of this history and how it traverses generations. Every last citizen will have to commit to societal healing.


Daughters of the Dust


My choice to screen Daughters of the Dust is to show how a process of healing from a traumatic history can occur in a period of transition. As a female filmmaker of color who has benefited from white privilege as much as I’ve experienced setbacks related to gender and race, I truly believe that suppressing our voices as storytellers does a disservice to the truth. I particularly believe in balance—the balance of the masculine and feminine, and the value in hearing both sides of the story. When the media industry blocks powerful creative voices and their stories that are crucial to our national narrative, we are literally walking with one eye covered. Without the benefit of depth perception we will run into walls.


Director, Julie Dash tells the story of slavery through one family gathering in the Gullah community of Georgia, a slave community that preserved West African traditions by remaining isolated on the coast and whose identity was threatened by the migration North after emancipation. Hers was the first film by an African American woman to be screened in cinemas in the U.S.; it is part of the National Film Registry, and underwent a restoration and re-release in 2016. Beyonce drew on Daughters of the Dust to inspire her music story video, Lemonade.


This film presents a different way of telling the story than what I have seen from male directors on this theme. There are no slavers Daughters of the Dust but the history and pain of abduction and forced servitude run through it. We don’t witness rape but we know it has occurred. We view a family gathering for a family meal in Sunday best, not downtrodden rags. We see dignity, we see the hard work of processing painful experiences, we see the choices made to move forward, and the loss of what is left behind. The film is intimately complex—it doesn’t spoon-feed the audience and requires an understanding of history to follow the experiences of the characters.


If you reflect on films about slavery by men you can note yourself how it is different—there are no scenes of beating. We do not see the dramatization of rape, we see it on the skin color of the actresses (I wouldn’t enjoy directing or replaying such a scene personally, or asking a woman to act it). The style of storytelling is different—there is no white savior character and no Aristotelian narrative curve with rising and falling action. But there is catharsis.


Julie Dash made this film in 1991—what an ambitious debut—and did not receive financing for another auteur feature, not for lack of trying, although she has directed projects for TV. I wish we didn’t have to wait 30 years for her sophomore debut but at last year’s Sundance it was announced that Dash will create an Angela Davis biopic. It’s about time.


The films and stories of the future will contextualize the constant changes we are living through now. New narratives will have to be written, new myths to create the new people and societies of the future; we will need brave new storytellers to imagine our new realities. For now, some symbols are emerging, and perhaps from these the archetypes of future myths will be constructed.

Take a Deep Breath


With the viral pandemic plaguing the world, dual symbols emerged that encapsulated our new reality. One is the symbol of breath. Breath is synonymous with life force. At the birth of a child those present heave a sigh of relief at the first cry because the cry symbolizes the life energy passing through the body— the cry means breath, health, aliveness.


The mysterious illness now threatening the globe attacks the body in a myriad of ways, as we are learning. We know for certain that it often attacks the lungs—patients simply cannot breathe. Subsequently in March, in order to contain the spread of this new, unknown, and invisible threat, we experienced the world grind to a halt--ships, planes, cars, industry, business, trade, politics, schools. We all moved inside, rapidly, and by government decree. It was as if an invisible God-like hand pulled the mythical lever that runs the world and turned it to “off.” Suddenly all people around the world, barring a few lost sailors and hermits, experienced a shared reality. The virus even penetrated the dense jungle.


We all witnessed what happened next. While hospitals, doctors and nurses were overwhelmed, desperate videos emerged to convince any skeptics that the virus was real. Families lost loved ones, ice rinks turned into morgues. But as humans closed activity, the natural world opened, as if it could finally “breathe” in relief. As the smog choking cities dissipated and blue skies emerged coyotes appeared strolling on the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps the dire predictions about irreversible environmental damage wouldn’t come to pass—the Earth could repair herself and rather quickly. A new study estimates the amount of lives saved by reduced air pollution may equal those lost to the virus. I couldn’t bring my reusable bags to the grocery store anymore (our futile yet meaningful acts to do good) but we saw that if only we could take our foot off the pedal long enough, we could give Mother Earth the time and the space to heal. The virus was suffocating human lungs but the lungs of the Earth were cleared for a moment and she could breathe again.

On Our Knees


The opposite--not being able to breathe--quickly epitomized the death of George Floyd.


On May 25th, outside of a shop in Minneapolis, a police officer with a history of chronic abuse kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on his neck, suffocating him to death. Mr. Floyd repeatedly uttered “I can’t breathe;” the murder was recorded on multiple videos.


The incident encompassed the other symbol that has permeated protests --the act of kneeling. We already had the symbol of kneeling in our public lexicon. On September 1, 2016 a 49ers quarterback frustrated by inaction surrounding racial injustice knelt during the national anthem before a road game. Then President Barack Obama defended Colin Kaepernick’s protest as his constitutional right and yet by March 3, 2017 the San Francisco quarterback was no longer with the NFL. Players still knelt as a form of protest without him (soccer player Megan Rapinoe started doing so on September 4th, 2016 in solidarity). On May 23, 2019 NFL owners attempted to ban kneeling during the national anthem but soon retracted. Kaepernick to this day is still unsigned but his movement has gone global.

Therefore, the very violence that sparked Kaepernick’s “taking a knee” in peaceful protest—the exact same symbolic action of kneeling—was commandeered by a white police officer to create the kind of murder the protest was meant to illuminate. Before us all, the officer asserted what he believes to be his authority over the life of another, using his knee to create an irreversible judgement without trial, a vigilante justice, a public execution without cause. It was an act to traumatize not only his victim but all of us witnessing his act by virtue of the media. With one knee bent one man declared that “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” and with another knee a man declared his right to murder on behalf of the state that employed him without cause and unconcerned of consequence.

Two months have passed and now an overwhelming majority of Americans (about 70%) believe the same as Colin Kaepernick—that the U.S. criminal justice system does not treat people of color the same as whites. The NFL issued a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, apologizing for not taking the issue seriously before.

Miss Anne


A second video emerged on May 25th as well, a video that seems innocuous next to the brutality of the first—a park scene of bird watchers and dogs, trees and grass with the specter of racist state violence nothing but a phone call away. It rounds out the George Floyd story, in a way—provides that depth perception of a second eye.


The video of George Floyd’s killing showed state violence in all its ugly relief. It reminds us that segments of our society, and powerful ones at that, revel in, support, and value such inhumanity. Others can turn their heads and say they simply are not witness to such violence, they don’t know about it; maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but criminals should be punished and who’s to say what really happened anyway…right? Hence the trending of #Karen, like BBQ Becky—the entitlement meme, a modern version of “Miss Anne,” a coded term referring to an imperious white woman who utilizes racist undertones in her speech (Zora Neale Hurston included it in her Glossary of Harlem slang in the 1930’s). So, even though her real name is Amy, Ms. Cooper has come to be known as The Central Park Karen.

At 10:03 in the morning in New York City on May 25th, Christian Cooper’s sister Melody uploaded a video her brother, a birdwatcher, had filmed of Amy Cooper threatening to call the police on him for requesting that she follow park rules and leash her dog to not endanger the birds. Watching the video it is clear how Ms. Cooper herself escalates the situation progressively during her 911 call, attempting to sound as if she is under physical attack by whom she reports to be a black man. She therefore, aware of the racism of the police force, lies about being attacked in order to invoke the power of the police state to potentially harm an innocent man. Which video is more dangerous? The act of murderous state violence against a citizen or that which consciously calls on the state to enact that very violence for no reason than being called upon to follow park rules? Both videos together show the conscious awareness and technique of racist violence and oppression. In a final twist that harkens to the history of slavery—when slaves were given the last names of their slave “owners”—both the black male birdwatcher and the white female dog walker have the same last name.


Julie Dash's film takes place in an optimistic and uncertain historical period when slave ships had stopped arriving to the US and when former slaves in the South began the migration North—the aftermath of the Civil War. Today, we still wrestle with how to remember and memorialize this history—are prisons an extension of slavery, using the descendants of former slaves as unpaid laborers? Are memorials to Confederate leaders a form of institutionalizing a narrative the nation is struggling to reject? Does taking them down mean anything if the feelings, emotions and opinions are unchanged? What is the soul of our nation and what principles will we stand on going forward? How will we tell these stories and who will tell them?


*for a recent interview with Julie Dash click here


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