In a new Facets video essay, Teresa Fleming explores allusions to Julie Dash‘s Daughters of the Dust in Beyoncé‘s Lemonade.
When Lemonade was released last April, it became Beyoncé’s sixth consecutive number one record and her second visual album. Twelve songs are linked by poetic interludes from British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. Together, they tell a story of infidelity, trauma, and family history.
There’s a lot going on here. The album is the combined product of seven different cinematographers, and it feels conscious of its own medium. As viewers, we’re constantly being reminded that we’re watching a film: the aspect ratio shifts continuously, ranging from widescreen panoramas that showcase landscapes to tight squares of home video and interview footage.
Lemonade’s cinematography works to situate itself within the film canon, and critics were quick to make note of possible allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s use of tense symmetry, Sophia Coppola’s dreamlike aesthetic, and Terrence Malick’s sweeping pastoral shots.
But among the most crucial and overlooked citations present in Lemonade is Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, a film which, in 1991, was the first project directed by a black woman to have a theatrical release within the U.S. Like Lemonade, Dash’s work is both personal and political. She tells the story of the Peazant family, who have lived for generations in relative isolation on a southern coastal island. In 1902 they face the decision to either join the great migration North or remain in their home. Their story is narrated by the unborn daughter of Eula and Eli Peazant, who plan to leave the island.
Dash’s visual influence on Lemonade is apparent in its long shots of lush island scenery and vibrant pastel color palette. Lemonade even borrows costumes, dressing many of its characters in the long, ethereal gowns favored by Dash. Both intersperse scenes of action with long shots of women gathered outdoors, in communion with each other and the natural world.
The films share more than just an aesthetic influence. They both reflect a unique preoccupation with the way time passes and feature challenging narratives that trouble the boundaries between past, present, and future.
The action in Daughters of the Dust takes place over the course of a single day, but the story it tells spans decades. The traumatic history of the island’s inhabitants is an ever-present character, made visible in the blue-stained hands of Nana Peazant, the family matriarch, who worked dying fabric with indigo before the abolition of slavery.
But it’s not just that the past impacts the present. Dash also shows us glimpses into the future through the voice of the unborn child, the film’s improbable, omniscient narrator. In a dreamlike sequence, the narrator appears among her enslaved ancestors as a young girl. She dips her fingers into the basin of ink, taking on the mark shared by Nana Peazant. Past and future appear intimately connected, the destructive prologue to island life an essential part of its current and future story.
In Lemonade, Beyonce draws parallels between the infidelities in her parents’ marriage and her own. Footage of her family from home videos is featured prominently, the shift in video quality signaling viewers to a step backward in time. But Beyonce goes back even further, reciting a recipe for lemonade passed down by Jay-Z’s grandmother.
Onscreen, stories pulled from multiple generations play out simultaneously, breaking down the barrier between past and present. And the album itself follows this practice, constantly cutting between different shots, refusing our efforts to make sense of it by fitting it into a linear narrative. Like Daughters of the Dust, Lemonade foregrounds the transmission of traditions across generations, a legacy of healing that runs counter to the traumatic histories that also characterize both films.
The frequent use of archival footage clues us into another theme that runs through both Lemonade and Daughters of the Dust : the way film enables us to record and replay memories at will.
In Daughters of the Dust, the Peazant family records their life on the island with the help of Mr. Snead, a photographer, as they stand on the cusp of a major transition, anticipating the family’s move from Ibo landing, where they have lived for generations.
Like the many charms and sacred objects Nana Peazant makes throughout the film, photography becomes a physical manifestation of familial memory. And that’s important, Nana Peazant explains, because slave owners worked to erase family ties. Under conditions that work to exterminate family history, the act of memory-keeping becomes a necessary method of resistance and survival.
Photography also manifests as a mode of resistance in Lemonade. Relatives of the victims of police brutality hold photographs of their slain family members in wordless recognition of their loss. As in Daughters of the Dust, the physical objects of memory-keeping stand in for relationships that have been lost and destroyed. Rendered static on film, their continued presence asserts an unwillingness to forget, a tacit form of protest made visible onscreen. While the lyrics urge viewers forward, the montage looks back and asserts that the future will be informed by a tragic past.
Lemonade and Daughters of the Dust both make a claim for the political power of photography that can be extended to film itself. Like their diegetic photographers, these filmmakers work to preserve narratives onscreen that might otherwise go untold, parsing out connections between the past, present and future.
And that’s part of what makes Lemonade’s citation of Daughters of the Dust so important. It’s a film that looks back at the legacy of black female directors like Julie Dash, even as it looks forward, featuring cameos from young filmmakers like Amandla Stenberg.
Severing it from its history robs it of its political power, and it misses the point. Lemonade isn’t an apolitical spectacle; it draws deeply from histories both personal and political to craft its narrative. If you want to see the whole story, you need to take a step back.
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Author: Teresa Fleming is a writer and editor studying English at Grinnell College. This summer she is a Programs Assistant at Facets.