Printer Friendly

The black South in contemporary film.

In a cinema accustomed to equating gritty with real, oppression with existence, and anger with passion when it comes to the lives and legacy of the descendants of African slaves in America, Julie Dash's 1992 film Daughters of the Dust is shocking. Finally, on the screen, African American life is freed from the urban, from the cotton picking, from the tragic integrationist ladder-climbing. Here, in the unlikely arena of American film, the complexity and shaded histories of Black women's lives take center stage. There are no whores or maids in this film. No acquiescent slaves. No white people. Instead, Daughters of the Dust offers an historical moment in African American culture, plain and imperfect, blended with such subtle charm, such careful technique that the preparation of food and a stroll along the beach become overwhelming in their beauty. And Dash has conceded that the film does have a certain preoccupation with beauty. Cinematographer Arthur Jafa holds close-ups far longer than is customary, not only allowing the audience to contemplate the specific grace of his subjects but also forcing viewers into intimate proximity with each one. The entire film, in fact, allows very little space for those who are not Black and not women - a circumstance that was heretofore inconceivable in American movie theaters.

Jafa's canvas, a grainy sweep of coastline buttressed by ancient trees and occasional grass, is itself breathtaking. The period costumes are as impeccable as they are varied. And, admittedly, the visual lyricism of the film is at times distracting.

The irony is that, on a certain level, the film's narrative is quite simple. A family at the turn of the century prepares to make the journey from the coastal islands off of Georgia and South Carolina, the Sea Islands, to the mainland of the United States. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Sea Islands were used as an entrance point for ships transporting African captives to the slave markets at Savannah and Charleston. The captives who remained on the Sea Islands, the Gullah or Geechee people, were isolated from the large plantations and cities controlled by whites and, consequently, retained a culture rich in Africanisms. (Even today, inhabitants of the Sea Islands maintain a distinct language and culture.)

During the early twentieth century, the period in which Daughters of the Dust takes place, the United States was in a period of tremendous industrial growth and held much promise and glamor for the young. In one scene, children pour over a "wish book," picking out all of the things they will be able to buy once they leave their isolated homeland. In this, Daughters of the Dust is a familiar immigrant drama. The young reach for change while the old cling to tradition. Folk ways a re challenged and modified for future use.

The family's matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lea Day), fears that with the new will come the loss of memory and, the dilution of the strength family provides, a strength particularly necessary for Black people. And, so, the Peazants' final moments on Ibo Landing the place of birth for most farmily members, focus on migrations to and from home, migrations that are' 30th physical and spiritual, and the awkward reconciliation of retention and integration.

On the day before the crossing, two expatriates return, embodying both the dilemma and promise migration presents. Mary Peazant (Barbara O), called Yellow Mary because of the color of her skin, is a world-weary traveler, a fallen woman returning to the shelter of her family. Yellow Mary's somber anecdotes, the story of how she became "ruined" working as a wet nurse in Cuba, for example, provide shrewd snubs to the others' dreams of a better life. Unlike the scraps of memory that Nana Peazant cherishes and draws upon for guidance, Yellow Mary's memories, inflicted by a hostile world in which Black women have no power, must be sealed up and put away, she tells one young cousin. Otherwise they will destroy you.

Viola Peazant (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), on the other hand, retums home to escort the family, joyfully, to their new fives. A missionary on the mainland, Viola has been sheltered from the dangerous side of life for Black women and devoured by the manifest destiny of Christianity. She rebuffs the West African traditions of the family elders as outdated, heathen. As her enlistment of the photographer, Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks), to document the crossing suggests, her faith is in the future - heaven and technology. For Viola, relocation is a necessary path to salvation.

But, on a much deeper level, the uneasy reunion of the cousins, Mary and Viola, the tension between tradition and modernity, is symbolic of a classic African American discourse: reconciling collective memory and the legacy of slavery with upward mobility and the American Dream. Much like Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger, Daughters of the Dust admits that the two are not mutually exclusive, provided there is a continuum of tradition and of family. A concluding scene in which Nana affixes an ancestral charm to the key Bible and compels each member to kiss it speaks powerfully to the collage of memory the film takes as its prevailing motif.

To mediate the encounter between old and new, Dash introduces the character of the Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warrren), sent by the ancestors to reclaim her troubled father, who has lost confidence in the "old ways." Her father doubts her paternity because of the rape of her mother by a white man; her mission is to assure him. While Yellow Mary and Viola dramatize the two sides of integration, the Unborn Child embodies the expanse of memory and the wealth of faith vital for the survival of African people in America. She is the hope of the Peazant family, the bridge between the last of the old with the first of the new.'

The Unborn Child also allows Dash to politicize the period by introducing the historical realities of sexual crimes by white men against Black women, rupturing the popular mainstream insistence on the Black-male-criminal/white-male-peacekeeper dichotomy. Daughters of the Dust further subverts the nostalgia of the turn of the century by interjecting lynching as elemental to the African American experience and by suggesting organized, Black-directed approaches to eradicating it as a phenomenon. By situating the Unborn Child as the narrator, who informs the viewer of her father's choice to stay behind on Ibo Landing to continue with the anti-lynching movement, Dash implies the critical and cumulative African American struggle for agency and the foundation that struggle has provided for future generations.

In Daughters of the Dust, Dash authenticates the collective memory as essential and as necessarily, including the spiritual platforms of the African cultures from which Black Americans are descended. At the same time, she legitimizes technology as a means of effecting retention through the intersection of the characters of the Unborn. Child and the photographer Mr. Snead.

Mr. Snead is a sophisticated city dweller. His sincere, probing into the cultures that gave rise to his own is analogous to the search that led to Alex Haley's Roots and is the theoretical foundation of the Afiocentric movement in education. It is largely through the interviews which Snead conducts that the legends of the people and that the disparate religions underlying their traditions - Yoruba, Islam, Christianity - surface in the film. When be leaves the island with those migrating north, he leaves with a lasting chronicle that harmonizes the oral traditions, the old, with a photographic document, the new - one fragment depending on the other to retain tradition in the future.

It is perhaps the comic scene in which the Unborn Child appears in Mr. Snead's lens, and only to him, that most clearly reveals the innovation Daughters of the Dust makes in the scope and the language of American cinema. As the elder men of the family pose for a portrait in their finest clothes, Africa far behind them across the sea, the Unborn Child materializes. The sentimentality of the moment, the routine masculine register of the moment, and, in fact, the reality of the moment are challenged by her youth and femaleness, by her intangible presence. Like certain African conventions, she represents a tradition of material apparitions, incarnations of ancestors empowered to interrupt as well as bolster. When she startles Mr. Snead, the Unborn Child unnerves American cinematic protocol, which demands that history be uncomplicated and purged, that Africa be foreign and romantic, that Black women be negligible and simple, and that African American culture be conscripted by oppression and ethical poverty.

To Sleep with Anger

Charles Burnett's 1991 film To Sleep with Anger also authenticates the awesome power of the ordinary, albeit the mythic ordinary. Set in the filmaker's Los Angeles, in the communities of first-generation Southern migrants far from the glitter of Hollywood or the often-photographed, war-torn neighborhoods of South Central, To Sleep with Anger is a study in contrasts: what appears to be and what is, lore and reality, love and hate, good and evil. With it, Burnett proves to be master of allegory.

Much like Burnett's earlier feature works, Killer of Sheep (1981) and My Brother's Wedding (1984), To Sleep with Anger concentrates on the inner workings of African American family life and fixes especially on the dreams and disappointments of fathers and sons. To Sleep with Anger's central characters, a middle-aged couple, Gideon and Suzie, and their two sons, Babe Brother and Junior, exist in a melancholy, perpetual armistice, their profound resentments lurking beneath cultivated veneers.

Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), an upwardly mobile bank officer, centralizes the bitterness of the others. As the younger son, Babe Brother represents the future and the hope of his family, but his constant disassociation from them - he doesn't go to church, he misses his mother's birthday, he's unwilling to assume responsibility for his own child - incarnates not only the threat of disintegration of the family but also the widespread failure of the post-Civil Rights generation to reconcile upward mobility with community.

Junior (Carl Lumbley), the elder brother, is a man who works with his hands, worships God, and provides for his family. Junior's roots, unlike Babe Brother's, are entwined with his parents; they are the same. His future is an unaltered progression of the past. Junior's labor is the struggle that guarantees freedom for others, but never for himself. Much like the elder son in the biblical story of the prodigal son, he deeply resents his parents' acceptance of Babe Brother's antics, knowing that his would not be tolerated in kind. In fact, the story of the prodigal son act s as a running commentary on the plight of a generation of urban African American men.

The premise of To Sleep with Anger is not entirely unlike that of many of its contemporaries in commercial African American cinema, most notably the critically acclaimed Boyz N the Hood. Burnett, like Boyz N the Hood's writer/director John Singleton, attempts to humanize the peculiar place Black men continue to hold in American society and to dramatize the ways the American Dream has eluded them. Subtly, Burnett's characters reveal the sobering rift between the appearance and the actuality of post-Civil Rights gains. But, unlike Singleton, Burnett chooses to situate his narrative in the tricky realm of collective, metaphysical African American lore rather than in contemporary, personal subjectivity. While Burnett's characters have achieved, one gathers through familial vigor, many of the trappings of "success," Singleton's struggle through spatial and economic disenfranchisement.

In fact, of all of the recent films which attempt to explicate the diversity of Black male actuality - including Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and Ernest Dickerson's Juice - to Steep with Anger is the only one that avoids entirely the overwhelming reality of today's urban ghetto, in explicit and implicit terms. Although the film has a modern urban setting references to the agrarian South, in which most African Americans have roots, abound. While Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) live in a comfortable, two-story house, they keep chickens in the backyard. In the opening scene, Suzie coaches expectant mothers and is revealed to be a midwife. In a later scene, the viewer learns that one of her grandchildren was born at home.

To Sleep with Anger opens with a spiritual blues that fades from city to country, and back to a composite of both, thus preparing the viewer for the psychic ambiguity at the film's core. Gideon, dressed in Sunday clothes and white shoes, sits in a chair; as his thoughts drift from the heavenly, his shoes catch fire and burn away. Suddenly, he is in overalls, out-of-doors. Burnett's blues return to the rural South as the point of origin not only of the conflicts represented but also of the tensions that exist with regard to family and social mobility.

The great Black migrations, which took African American people from Southern plantations into large cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, came at great spiritual and communal cost, distancing African Americans from family and roots. Away from the elaborate support systems of extended family and community, an uprooted Southerner had only the artificial constructs of neighborhoods and government and the more insular nuclear family to rely upon for guidance and practical education. Moral instruction became limited to Sundays. Gideon's lost "tobie," or ancestral charm, is indicative, in many ways, of this displacement and how it can lead to ruin.

Though Gideon maintains a symbolic connection to the most immediate traditions, as evidenced by his tobie and his chickens, Babe Brother is unmistakably the break in his chain. Babe Brother, the prodigal son, refuses to stay and work his father's metaphorical fields. Instead, he journeys to "a far country and there waste[s] his substance with riotous living" (Luke 15:13). In fact, it is Gideon's search for the lost tobie that immediately precedes the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover) and the upheaval of uniting the past and the mythic with the present and the daily.

As the dormant fury that has resided just below the surface, one imagines for years, begins to erupt, a seemingly benign ghost from the past appears on the family's doorstep. The mannerly spectre, Harry, weary from his travels, is convinced to rest a spell, stay awhile. But his presence irritates, provokes the old wounds. Masterfully played by Danny Glover, Harry is the best and the worst of all Gideon and Suzie left behind in the Mississippi Delta, a wolf in sheep's clothing. When Harry and his "resurrected" friends from the South begin to infiltrate the cosmopolitan layer of the narrative, the other pieces of the illusion begin to fall away as well. Enticing Babe Brother, Harry manages to capture and cripple the hope. Endowed with nether world powers, he is able to resurrect the old and the evil within the younger son, and send the entire family into a tailspin.

Several early scenes reveal Harry to be not an ordinary hometown wanderer but a troublemaker from way back. The first insight the viewer gets into Harry's character comes from an exchange between him and a born again Chistian. Harry asks about her mother, who used to run "a house" in the South. As the exchange heats up, Harry becomes venomous and unyielding. Later when Junior's pregnant wife enters, she is prevented from shaking Harry's hand several times because of her baby's powerful kicking. And Harry's subtle comments clearly seek to undermine the peace between Gideon and Suzie.

Harry immediately sets his sights on Babe Brother, who is thrown into a childlike trance by Harry's stories. And once Harry's idea for an old-fashioned fish fry and get-together materializes, Babe Brother's descent begins. Like the prodigal son, he removes himself from the family, first spiritually then physically. Since his relationship with his father is highly strained to begin with, it is the first to go. Next he sheds his brother and mother.

His separation with his wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), however, marks the most drastic and revealing shift. Shown initially as an independent ladder-climber, she represents the tensions between Babe Brother and the family, refusing to participate in their "backwards" ways and dismissing their orthodoxy. Yet, as Babe Brother loses control of himself, sliding into the habits of knife-play, liquor, and gambling, she is the only being left for him to control. His brutal treatment of her, in fact, suggests Harry's early attempts to manipulate Gideon and Suzie. Upon her separation from Babe Brother, she is taken in by the family and works in unison with them to bring her husband back into the fold. Ultimately, it is the women, Babe Brother's wife and mother, who reclaim him and, in doing so, destroy Harry and what he represents - the disruption of the family.

Burnett's critique of family is as layered as it is piercing. Unlike Boyz N the Hood, Jungle Fever, or the other films that have taken up the celebrated crisis of the African American male, Burnett finds a conclusion that resides within the continuum of African American experience and not in resistance to it. Rather than opting for an individual solution, as Boyz N the Hood's "go to school" conclusion does, or blaming current crises like crack cocaine, Burnett makes the family necessary for recovery. Furthermore, by utilizing female characters as agents for positive change, To Sleep with Anger offers a solution at once communal and feminine.

Still, the real insight provided by To Sleep with Anger reaches much deeper. By demystifying blues culture and robbing it of its sensation as exotic and pure, Burnett begins to analyze cinematic language and interrogate the ways in which mainstream cinema constructs African American reality. The "Old South" is not allowed to be a nostalgic site brimming with good times and high cotton. Rather, it is the birthplace of a culture as historically sound as it is endangered.

The necessity of the tobie, of Suzie's antidotal cures for Gideon's illness bespeak the importance of resourcefulness and continuity in filtering what is through what appears to be. While Babe Brother's wife initially appears to be more independent than Suzie, it is she who is nearly reduced to slavery; she is unable to pull her husband back when he slips into depravity. Suzie, the docile and domestic wife, is the strong one. While the facade of middle-class life seems serene, it is rife with anger and misery. While the city dweller seems corrupt and the home folk safe, the neighbors in Los Angeles bring food and comfort, and phantoms from the past bring trouble.
COPYRIGHT 1993 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Section 1: Black South Culture
Author:Jones, Jacquie
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Next Article:The autobiography of an idea.

Related Articles
Like Rashomon but different: the new black cinema.
Noir by noirs: towards a new realism in Black cinema.
And I owe it all to Sterling Brown: the theory and practice of Black literary studies.
Folk culture and masculine identity Charles Burnett's 'To Sleep with Anger.'.
Which Way to the Promised Land?: Spike Lee's Clockers and the Legacy of the African American City.
Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations by African American Women.
Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian.
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, ed. Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters