Timing is everything. Just ask Tim Lanza, vice president and archivist of the Cohen Film Collection. Last spring, he and his team were working on the restoration of Julie Dash’s ground-breaking 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” for its 25th anniversary.
Then Beyoncé suddenly dropped her visual album “Lemonade,” which included many visual references to Dash’s groundbreaking film, and interest in the restoration project soared. The anticipated home video release grew into a limited theatrical release, the first since the film premiered in theaters in 1992.
“There was a definite Beyoncé bump,” Lanza says. “It’s exciting that the film is now finding both old and new audiences.”
Lanza says “Daughters” was a visionary film.
“There was nothing like it when it came out and there hasn’t been a lot like it since. I think that’s also why there was such a strong reaction to ‘Lemonade.’”
“Daughters of the Dust” was the first feature directed by an African-American woman to receive a general theatrical release. Inspired by the history of Dash’s own family, the movie takes place at the turn of the 20th century on Dawtuh (Daughter) island, one of the small barrier islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The inhabitants of these islands, descendants of the African slaves who were forced to work the indigo and rice plantations, have remained isolated from the mainland and speak a distinct language called Gullah or Geechee.
The Peazants, a family with deep roots on the island, are at a crossroads. Led by Haagar (Kaycee Moore), the younger generation want to join the Great Migration and move north. The older generation, led by Nana (Cora Lee Day), is determined to stay on the island. Haagar and her siblings are excited by the cultural and economic opportunities that the North offers; Nana worries that they will lose their sense of identity and that the North will not be “the land of milk and honey” they dream of.
The extended family comes together for a final picnic before they begin the journey. The emotional gathering includes Nana’s granddaughter Yellow Mary (Barbara O) and her lover Trula (Trula Hoosier) who visit the family on their journey to Nova Scotia. Because of her sexuality and her past as a sex worker, Yellow Mary is initially rejected by some of her family members.
The unconventional film quickly became a cult classic and an inspiration to a generation of filmmakers. Unfortunately, the film was neglected by its original distributor.
When Lanza became aware that the filmmaker was looking for a new distributor, he leapt at the chance. He discovered that the staff at the UCLA Film and Television Archive had rescued the original film elements from a lab by paying a decades-old bill and had constructed a new 35mm print from the original internegative.
Lanza and his team acquired the distribution rights and began work on restoring the film. Under the supervision and approval of the film’s original cinematographer Arthur Jafa, the film was finally properly color-graded; this was especially important, Lanza notes, to capture the rich gradations in African-American skin tones and the distinct qualities of light on the islands where the film was shot.
In addition to the color grading, the film also underwent digital restoration to stabilize the color, remove dirt and scratches and clean up the soundtrack. The restored picture was premiered at Cannes last May and will open in D.C. for a limited engagement at the AFI Silver Theatre on Friday, Feb. 17.
Fans of “Lemonade” can spot Dash’s influence on Beyoncé and company throughout the film. Visually, there’s the remarkable saturation and balance of color and the long shots of island scenery. There’s the long lines of women in flowing white gowns and the beautiful tableaus on the beaches and in trees. In the storytelling, there’s the powerful and magical blurring of past, present and future. Most importantly, there’s the tribute to generations of fierce African-American women.
Julie Dash is currently working on a feature documentary based on Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s bestselling book “Vibration Cook: or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.” Smart-Grosvenor, who appeared in “Daughters,” is a world-renowned author, performer and chef from South Carolina.
As for Lanza, he’s busy preserving and restoring other screen classics from around the world. The Cohen Film Collection continues its work preserving silent films, especially the works of the legendary Buster Keaton. The company recently acquired the Merchant Ivory collection. A restored version of the Academy Award-winning “Howard’s End” premiered at Cannes last year, and a restored version of the gay classic “Maurice” will be released later this year.