NEW YORK — WHILE such leading African-American filmmakers as Spike Lee and John Singleton undertake explorations of today's black community, others are quietly examining the roots of that community in times and places far removed from the inner cities of the 1990s.
One such artist is Julie Dash, whose ambitious "Daughters of the Dust" pays a turn-of-the-century visit to one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, where an isolated way of life has allowed African traditions to persist with a strength unknown in most of the American mainland.
The movie focuses on the Peazant family, a clan of the Gullah people, descended from West Africans brought to the United States in the days of slavery. As a group, the Peazants have remained so close to their African origins that the oldest member of the family still engages in ancient magic and ritual. Still, the clan has decided it's time to move to the mainland and seek a more actively modern life.
As they prepare for their journey on a summer day, a number of conflicts, rivalries, and disagreements make themselves felt with unusual acuteness. Nana, the elderly matriarch with a continuing faith in African ritual, feels the move is a terrible mistake; yet Viola, a dedicated Christian, and Haagar, an aspiring member of the middle class, are eager to abandon the last remnants of all that Nana's beliefs represent.
Other characters include Yellow Mary, a family member who has worked as a prostitute in Cuba before returning to the Gullah islands, and Eula, a young woman who believes her pregnancy has resulted from a rape she suffered at the hands of a white landowner.
It's clear that Ms. Dash is concerned not only with African-American history, but with the roles played by women in the development of black American society. "Daughters of the Dust" is more a character study than a conventional narrative, and it's the female characters who come most vividly alive.
Yet the film is also a work of visual art more than a psychological drama in the usual sense. It dwells on the ravishing seacoast environment with an attention that's almost obsessive, taking less care to sketch out the plot details and story transitions that are the main order of business in most movies.
This works to the film's advantage at times, linking it with bygone traditions of nonlinear narrative that African storytellers would quickly recognize.
On the other hand, Dash is so careful to establish the basis for an engrossing movie-style narrative that it seems unfortunate she doesn't take advantage of this. The film's potential audience is also likely to be diminished by its leisurely, sometimes meandering, style.
Dash deserves great credit for reaching toward a new kind of cinematic structure that blends compassionate character exploration with a deep interest in the world of nature, and a bold willingness to let storytelling take care of itself at its own unhurried pace. One hopes, however, that in future works she will lean more decisively in a single clear direction - toward painterly visualization or toward psychological narrative.