Daughters of the Dust

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Daughters of the Dust Movie Poster Image
Beautiful, slow-paced historical drama; violence, cursing.
  • NR
  • 1991
  • 112 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Historical drama presents the unique culture and traditions of the Sea Island Gullahs through the intertwining lives and history of a Gullah family living on an island off the coast of Georgia in 1902. Explores themes of tradition and change as characters consider leaving the island to find more economic opportunity. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The lives, culture, and dialect of the Sea Island Gullahs are brought to life, and the depth and richness of the individual characters are vividly conveyed. 

Violence

Two characters get into a confrontation with pushing and shoving. Two of the characters were raped while on the mainland; one becomes pregnant. Characters tell the story of a slave uprising and mass suicide that occurred on the island. 

Sex

One character has a secret lover on the island; some kissing. One of the characters returns from Cuba, where she worked as a prostitute. 

Language

Infrequent profanity: "N" word used once, "damn," "hell." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Two characters sit in a tree giggling uncontrollably while passing back and forth what looks to be a joint. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Daughters of the Dust is a 1991 drama about a Sea Island Gullah family in 1902 trying to decide if they should remain on their island or start new lives on the mainland. While a critically-acclaimed film and considered by some to be one of the greatest African American films ever made, the slow pace, circular story structure, and challenging dialect make this a challenging viewing for younger audiences, as well as audiences who prefer more linear and action-packed movies. The movie offers a fascinating and educational glimpse into a wholly unique African American culture at a time when it was faced with maintaining its traditions or leaving the island in search of new lives. Two women sit in a tree giggling while passing what appears to be a joint between them. While on the mainland (not shown, as the entire movie is filmed on the island), one of the women is raped by a white man and becomes pregnant; another character is also a rape survivor. "N" word used during a fight between two characters. Characters tell the story of a slave uprising and mass suicide that occurred on the island. One character has a secret lover on the island; some kissing. One of the characters returns from Cuba, where she worked as a prostitute. 

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What's the story?

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST tells the story of the Peazant Family -- Sea Island Gullahs who live an isolated existence on an island off the mainland of Georgia. The year is 1902, and many members of the Gullah are leaving for the mainland to begin a new life in the "modern" world. The matriarch of the family, Nana, adheres to the Gullah traditions passed down from African ancestors. Two cousins who are opposite in temperament, the devout Christian Viola and the free-spirited Yellow Mary, have returned from their mainland homes for one last dinner with the entire family. Yellow Mary, a prostitute in Cuba, now plans to leave for Nova Scotia, and the sanctimonious Viola already lives in Philadelphia. While Nana is determined to stay on the island, her granddaughter-in-law Haagar is determined to leave for the North. Nana's grandson Eli is undecided about leaving, and is unable to accept that his wife Eula has been raped by a white man, and is now pregnant, and the child (who is also the narrator of the movie) may not be his. Throughout, the characters struggle with wanting to maintain their rich Gullah culture and traditions and striking out to find a new life on the mainland. 

Is it any good?

Beautifully filmed, this movie offers a fascinating glimpse of a unique culture at a pivotal moment in its existence. In 1902, the Sea Island Gullahs, descendants of slaves in America who managed to continue their West African traditions while also developing their own Creole dialect, are torn between maintaining their traditions or migrating to the economic opportunities afforded by the rapidly industrializing North. Each character seems to represent a viewpoint of the debate, and the stunning visuals and circular storytelling evoke a dreamlike atmosphere, as hypnotic as the ever-present surf around them.

That said, it's not for everyone. The pace of Daughters of the Dust can feel downright glacial at times, especially since most of what we've come to understand as "action" takes place off-screen, there are many characters to keep track of, and the dialect (as rich as it is) is sometimes difficult to understand. Some will no doubt find the many shots of cooking food and ocean waves to be pretentious rather than hypnotic. But the reasons for evoking this world are clearly not done to be precious or "arty." It's the kind of movie that rewards repeated viewings, and the lingering impressions after viewing it encourage a revisit. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about African American history. What did you learn from watching Daughters of the Dust? How could you learn more?

  • How is the movie's story structure different from other movies? Why do you think the filmmakers chose to tell the story this way? 

  • How does the movie explore the conflicts between maintaining cultural traditions versus changing to seek out a different life in the "modern" world? How do the different characters seem to represent the different viewpoints in this debate? 

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African American stories

Themes & Topics

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