ANYONE harboring the idea that PBS has lost its raison dtre as a cultural public service should have a look at next Wednesday's edition of "American Playhouse."
The series is designed to offer original works by American dramatists, and the edition coming up is about as original, in both setting and perspective, as you're likely to see on television. "Daughters of the Dust," a film created by Julie Dash, offers a long look - languid but compelling, impressionistic but purposeful - at the unique black culture of the Gullah people on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
The show's airing probably won't settle any of the arguments that have been swirling recently in Congress and elsewhere about just what kind of programs should be on PBS, how much money the service should get, or whether we need public TV at all. Yet "Daughters of the Dust" does offer arresting proof that public TV has a place not yet filled by any other part of the medium.
Certainly not by the commercial networks. I can't imagine them airing a film like this, so happily free of the hype and stylistic cliches common to many prime-time movies. And there are precious few cable channels likely to carry a production that allows Ms. Dash to reach back into her own memories as she does here. She was born and raised in Long Island City, part of New York City and a place about as far removed from Sea Island's culture as you can get. But her dad was a Gullah, and she recalls how he would ceremonially prepare the gumbo for soup and stick pieces on the kids' faces - a ritual joke that reappears as a scene in the film. From there Dash researched, wrote, and directed a richly evocative story of the islands that cries out for the kind of serious artistic attention it gets on PBS.
The time is 1902, a critical point for the Peazant family. Relatives gather from afar for a picnic to send off members who have decided to move from their ancestral island home to the mainland. It's not a big jump geographically, but psychically it's a watershed event and threatens the loss of their African culture, preserved until now because of the relative isolation of their setting. The move divides the women of the clan, who are the focus of the action, and it especially grieves Nana, the matriarcha l figure in whose powerful character all the tribal memories seem gathered.
Dash has woven a telling picture of both individuals and the extended family as a group. But her style take a little getting used to. The tale unfolds in dreamlike sequences that are like memories conjured from a tribal unconscious. The soundtrack rings with field cries and other sounds and sights rooted in West Africa. The film can be a drag at times when it merges into murkiness and incomprehensibility, but you'll come away still seeing its stirring images. Young girls in white clap hands and leap arou nd on the flat sand by the shore in a chaste and ecstatic dance of African memory and future hopes. Wind blows picnic tablecloths in a slow-motion pantomime by the seaside. Women pound food in wooden hollows.
In an interview after the film, Dash says the story is "a celebration of the African-American woman," and you'll find it pungently rooted in the experiences of girls who have grown up at the feet of women making food and sharing their troubles with each other. The female characters are products of an ancient tradition - whether they reject or embrace it - and they leave an impression of beauty, depth, pride, and power.
The film had an admiring reception at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and has now been seen in some 150 domestic markets. In New York it sold out several times. Yet in making the leap to TV, Dash says "Daughters of the Dust" is truly discarding the "aura of invisibility" surrounding black women filmmakers. The drama's exposure on "American Playhouse" means one corner of America is showing the rest of us what it was like to be part of this vibrant culture.
That's an ideal function for public TV. It's sad to learn that PBS plans to cut back on the number of new episodes in the series starting next fall. Even though some its dramas are not worth watching, this is TV's only regular series at least trying to present serious new American dramas, and if that isn't worth encouraging on public television, I don't know what is.