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Discuss the Representation of either Race or Gender

In One or More Films


In this essay, I would like to discuss the representation of gender in the film Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash in 1991. The film tells the story of a Gullah family in 1902, who live in the Sea Islands (off the cost of South Carolina and Georgia) and wish to cross to the mainland. The family is free slave descendents for the past two generations; and as director Dash argues, these islands became the Elis Island for the Africans, the processing centre of the transatlantic slave trade (Dash et al, 1992, p. 6).

The film is overlaid with many but related topics on slavery, gender, and race, as well as the contrast between tradition and modern life. The main characters of the film are all women members of the Peazant family: Nana the grandmother and spiritual leader; Eula the pregnant daughter; granddaughter Yellow Mary who returned from an immoral life abroad; and the Unborn Child. Through these characters, Dash addresses different themes regarding the position of woman in society, the female body, and her relation to tradition, family, and religion.

Also relevant today, the film tells of women's solidarity that can surpass any obstacles, portrayed in the relationship between Eula and Yellow Mary, and Yellow Mary and Nana. Most importantly, solidarity and hope linger on in the Unborn Child that can be seen as the daughter of all these figures, the child of the world and the emblem of the spirit that cannot be touched, harmed, or forgotten (Curry, 1996, p. 352). Indeed, as the Unborn Child narrates, it was Nana's words that helped her spirit and guided her in this world.

In this way, the film shows how women can resist the physical as well as psychological violence of men and protect their body, family, and position in society. However, as Teresa de Lauretis warns, one should not universalise sexual difference (de Lauretis, 1987, p. 2). In other words, there cannot be a unified view of the past, nor of the role of women in society. Rather, there are many aspects, and it is this multiplicity that helps us to critically engage with contemporary issues of gender.

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