Female Filmmakers in Focus: Cauleen Smith on Drylongso

The Nineties noticed a growth in impartial and DIY filmmaking, launching the careers of numerous filmmakers. But, for a lot of Black girls administrators, this bubble typically burst after their debut movies had been launched, leaving many administrators like Ayoka Chenzira, Lesley Harris, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Cauleen Smith, with just one function movie to their identify. Fortunately in the previous couple of years, many of those movies have been restored and re-released, and the legacy of those singular filmmakers reevaluated throughout the lens of the systematic racism and misogynoir that pushed them out of Hollywood. 

Director and artist Cauleen Smith’s function “Drylongso” is the most recent of those films to be introduced again into circulation due to a brand new 4K restoration by Janus Movies. Shot on location in Oakland in 16mm, Smith’s movie blends genres, telling a buddy story, a romance, and a homicide thriller . As many Black males in the neighborhood die round her, artwork scholar Pica (Toby Smith) begins preserving their picture by way of Polaroids as “proof of their existence.” She additionally begins a romance with one other artist and activist named Malik (Will Energy) and a friendship with a girl named Tobi (April Barnett), attempting to flee an abusive relationship. Because the serial killer stalking the group goes unsolved by the police, Pica turns to her inventive spirit and the power of her friendships to take management of her personal destiny. 

After premiering “Drylongso” on the 1999 Sundance Movie Pageant and successful the Somebody To Watch award on the Impartial Spirit Awards, Smith spent 5 years in Hollywood working, shadowing creators, and writing screenplays on spec. Annoyed by the dearth of alternatives open to her in Hollywood, she turned to educating, first at UT Austin and now at CalArts. In the previous couple of many years, her artwork has moved nearer to the sculpture artwork made by Pica in her debut. Her mixed-media banners had been featured as a part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. She’s additionally remodeled 40 experimental brief movies incorporating her work in Afrofuturism and group activism. These movies, alongside along with her different immersive multimedia displays, have been introduced in museums throughout the nation.  

For this month’s Feminine Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Smith over the telephone in regards to the making of her trailblazing impartial movie, working with the group of Oakland, and the various methods by which Black girls’s craft is commonly ignored within the arts.

Was the title of your movie impressed in any respect by the e book of the identical identify from the early ’80s?

Sure, by John Langston Gwaltney. In that e book, he’s mainly like a cultural anthropologist. He interviews working-class Black individuals, and loads of them discuss with themselves as “drylongso.” They do not fairly perceive why he needs to interview them. They had been like, “I am simply drylongso,” which suggests actually bizarre, on a regular basis individuals. I used to be actually intrigued by that time period, after which I observed it popping up in blues songs and different locations. It is extra sometimes used within the South and the Caribbean, so being from the West Coast, I had by no means heard it earlier than. It appeared like an ideal title for the kind of those who I wished to place in my movie.

How did you first develop these characters and the story?

It was positively one thing I used to be engaged on at first as a brief movie. All the Polaroids that you just see within the movie had been Polaroids that I used to be taking on the course of a few years, figuring out that I wanted these props for this movie, or on the time possibly it was going to be an artwork set up. Within the strategy of taking the images and consistently asking individuals,” Hey, can I take your image?” I’d suppose, “Oh, that is an attention-grabbing character.” 

I began pondering of it as a brief movie. I began actually utilizing the conversations I used to be having with the individuals within the images to put the groundwork for the story. A variety of the images had been taken within the Bay Space, however I went right down to UCLA to go to grad faculty, and that is the place I actually kicked in gear, ending a script and placing it by way of its paces with the stuff I used to be studying in grad faculty when it comes to the best way to like break down a manufacturing. 

By way of the style mixing within the movie, on the time, I used to be working at this information transcription service the place I transcribed the information at night time whereas going to high school through the day. Each week there was a narrative a few lifeless Black woman someplace in South Central LA who was unidentified. Generally they might even present their manicure to see if anybody knew the woman by figuring out the manicure. So I’m transcribing the information, and these tales are popping up each week, however possibly on a special community and never the identical reporter. It didn’t seem to be anyone was selecting up on the truth that this simply retains taking place. After which the identical reporter will not be monitoring the story. And I am like, “Look, there is a serial killer.” I am telling all my pals in movie faculty there’s a serial killer in LA killing Black ladies. And everybody was like, if that was taking place, they might learn about it. 

After which it turned out to be who they referred to as The Grim Sleeper, proper? 

Yeah. Later they referred to as him The Grim Sleeper. On the time, that form of predatory shadow was very a lot in my psyche as a result of I needed to trip the bus at night time. In order that turned a part of the story. I do know lots of people discuss in regards to the movie, and I am not attempting to be defensive, however they suppose that aspect is bizarre, will not be acceptable for the style. But it surely was really a very mundane a part of life. Like, oh my god, there is a serial killer right here. 

I assumed the way in which the serial killer plot performs out largely in these background information experiences was actually attention-grabbing, particularly the way in which it is revealed that they’re alternating between killing girls and killing males. That metaphor is actually intriguing as a result of the movie clearly talks in regards to the epidemic of Black males dying on the time, however the movie can be very clearly conscious that it is just a little of each. Might you speak about the way you constructed that into the story?

I believe we wished to have a relationship between that violence, the shadow, and the precise narrative of the story. And that is when it stopped being my story and have become the story of Pica (Toby Smith). So the serial killer within the movie is an equal-opportunity neighborhood predator. There’s not loads of dialog about how these individuals exist. A number of individuals wish to toss round concepts round Black-on-Black crime, and so forth., however nobody needs to speak in regards to the predators in their very own group, no matter what that group is. In order that character turned the receptacle for that total form of refusal to acknowledge that there are individuals who prey on actually susceptible individuals, and we do not need to speak about that as a result of there are different issues which might be extra sensational which might be put within the forefront.

Yeah, like later, there is a newscast the place they report that the police suppose the killer is a low-priority crime, although there are such a lot of lifeless individuals. 

Proper? I imply, now there is a time period that is been revealed within the LAPD, that they used to make use of the time period NHI or “no people concerned,” and that was used for crimes that concerned Black individuals as victims. So now we all know that was institutionalized at the moment. It was a sense that, for me, that character was the consultant of this basic form of violent indifference in direction of on a regular basis life.

I additionally thought Tobi (April Barnett) was compelling in that you just confirmed two prongs along with her character. You actually showcase the day-to-day violence of intimate associate abuse and what she’s going by way of simply attempting to interrupt up with this man who is clearly very unhinged. However she additionally finds freedom in dressing as a person, even at a time when so many Black males are dying. 

That place that she’s in is extra widespread than we wish to admit. And that was the purpose. Nobody goes round saying, “Hey, I went house final night time, and my husband punched me within the face.” It isn’t not watercooler discuss. She’s simply attempting to make herself really feel protected, mainly. Within the ’90s dishevelled garments and hoodies had been a very great tool for everybody to grow to be incognito, to grow to be very troublesome to discern or see. That form of streetwear was then thought-about actually threatening as a result of it made it actually arduous for cops to isolate and single out individuals. All of us turned one mass of like a covert presence that will seem like actually menacing to the mainstream. 

Now in fact, that is widespread, however on the time, it was a strategy to conceal. That was an enormous a part of what that trend was about. Not solely hiding your face however hiding no matter you wanted to hold round or no matter enterprise you wanted to deal with or no matter items or valuables you might need. It seems to be bizarre now, however on the time, it could be quite common to throw on a hoodie and actually dishevelled pants and transfer round in case you do not need to be sexually harassed or remoted in any means. 

The movie is a bit like a time capsule in that a lot of what you incorporate feels very of its time but nonetheless hits themes that resonate right now. Women are nonetheless coping with intimate associate abuse. They’re nonetheless coping with being harassed on the road. It is fascinating to see how that armor will get constructed, relying on the time. And the style within the movie itself is, I believe, actually lovely. I really like Pica’s outfits. I really like the shirts that Malik makes. It actually took me again to the ’90s and people airbrush shirts. Had been these made particularly for the movie? How did you incorporate all that trend into the movie?

The artist (Keith Williams) can be within the movie. He is the actually tall man with lengthy dreads within the trio out of the blue denims. He is the artist who made these T-shirts and was really actually profitable with them. I consider he had a line of clothes at JCPenney for a time period. He was a member of the Oakland cultural group. He was actually beneficiant and agreed to be within the movie. We shot some scenes in his loft. It is a movie that was very a lot made by the Oakland Neighborhood. 100%. And he is an incredible instance of that.

I cherished the scene in Marcus Books, which remains to be in Oakland. This actually is such an Oakland story. What was the placement scouting like?

We’ve got a very nice line producer named Christine Gant, who was born in Oakland. Whereas I used to be down in LA, going to high school and ending up the script, Christine was driving round West Oakland, taking a look at deserted homes and attempting to determine the place we may shoot this factor. It was very clear that the home that Pica lives in was one of many predominant anchors of the whole movie. The whole lot would revolve round that geography. So it must be not only a actually nice home, however on an incredible block. 

I lived in that neighborhood earlier than I went right down to grad faculty at UCLA, so I knew the neighborhood. Traditionally, it’s actually venerable and has this nice historical past of activism, although it was actually struggling at the moment due to willful disinvestment by town powers. That neighborhood wasn’t getting loads of assist and was being blamed for its personal vulnerabilities. The individuals who had been there at the moment, had been actually struggling to hold on. There have been loads of empty homes. 

Christine drove round and simply took photos of them. We discovered those that we favored and he or she tracked down house owners. One of many house owners was simply wonderful. The household wasn’t doing something with the home and didn’t know what they wished to do with it. So that they informed us if we purchased a water heater and did some repairs, we may use it for the summer time. We requested if we may paint it they usually stated yeah. The neighbors who actually hated that paint colour. 

That pink was lovely. It actually pops.

By the tip of the summer time, they had been like you do not have to color it again; we like it. Once more, that is such a central story of how this movie was made and the way the title of the movie really encompasses not simply the fictional characters, however the precise group that made it potential for us to shoot it. From the house owners of that house on Magnolia Road to the entire block letting us plug in lights in the midst of the night time into their home whereas they’re asleep. I lived and slept in that home each night time on my own for 3 weeks. There have been barely any locks on the doorways and never one factor occurred to me and no gear was stolen. When that form of factor is going on in a neighborhood, it is since you’re protected. As a result of there’s an settlement throughout the group that nobody’s gonna actually mess with you. That the group made when it comes to defending what we had been attempting to do. I’ve by no means been so grateful. I’ve by no means actually forgotten that feeling of how when individuals had been driving by slowly, it wasn’t as a result of they will shoot us; they had been checking on their children as a result of their children had been hanging out on our set.

You’ll be able to really feel how lifelike the group depiction was with the actors’ interactions with the individuals on the road. Had been these extras or simply individuals on the road?

So many had been the individuals we met. The truth is, one of many stars to me, like a star of the movie, is the actually belligerent girl (Tammy Washington).

Yeah, she felt very Bay Space to me.

Oh my gosh, 100%. She lived within the neighborhood. Folks would drive up whereas we had been capturing and ask what we had been doing and if we had been capturing a music video, then inform us that they had performing expertise. So she and her mom came around the set someday and informed us they did group theater. They had been actually simply sharing that that they had expertise to supply up. And I used to be like, “Actually, since you guys are wonderful. Do you need to be in a scene?” She took a number of traces and turned that character into any individual. We simply saved calling her again, like, “Hey, are you able to come to the BART station? As a result of it’s going to be so cool in case you could possibly be within the scene.” On the finish, when she does that streak throughout the empty lot and chases everybody away, that was a dialog that we had the place I used to be like, “It is time for this occasion to finish, and I want you to get these individuals off the spot,” and he or she simply did it.

I actually felt that character. I used to dwell on the Oakland/Berkeley border and this movie positively felt just like the Oakland I knew.

Proper. It looks as if this type lovely trickster, like actually belligerent however completely innocent. There have been simply so many individuals who popped up like that. One in every of our grips was a younger man named Carlos. His father would drop him off to crew, and he would work with my head gaffer Kurt (Nagle-Taylor). He skilled him the best way to lower gels to rig lights. He was a central crew member. He was 15 on the time. Now Carlos is within the union and simply doing nice. It was simply actually lovely. It was fully neighborhood pushed. We had little or no cash, so all the pieces needed to be what individuals had been prepared to present us and contribute.

There was a second early within the movie the place Malik and Pica are hanging out, and he is studying a really particular deck of tarot playing cards, studying her future. How did that scene come to be?

That individual deck was actually thrilling as a result of it was a deck that was shifting from tarot into Santeria. So it was all of the Orisha, and the cups and swords had been changed into cowrie shells. Once I noticed the deck I knew it was the proper deck. I am not even actually into tarot, however within the narrative, I wanted a metaphor for the shift between the deck of Polaroid photographs that Pica lays out like divination and the tarot playing cards which she additionally lays out like divination. She’s consistently confronting her destiny, or the destiny of those who she loves, both by way of the Polaroids or by way of the tarot playing cards, and the truth that I may discover a deck of playing cards that had been a consultant of African Orishas as an alternative of European princes or elven or no matter, was actually a present. I nonetheless have that deck someplace.

Did you discover that regionally in Oakland?

I believe I purchased it at Marcus Books to be sincere.

I wished to ask you in regards to the status of the movie. When it was launched, there have been fairly a number of movies from Black girls that did not essentially go underneath the radar, however possibly had been misinterpreted and uncared for. Final 12 months, I spoke to Ayoka Chenzira, whose movie “Alma’s Rainbow” was at Sundance after which disappeared. 

They’re forward of their time. 

Precisely. And now they’re being checked out now because the masterworks that they had been. I might love to listen to your ideas on having lived by way of this period with one other one in all these movies that was form of handled not the way in which it ought to have been.

I bear in mind seeing Ayoka’s movie within the theaters with Q&A, and I bear in mind being fully gobstruck by it. That form of factor saved taking place then, and I am form of pleased that it appears to occur much less now, is that the conversations round these movies had been very poor. It did not matter what the director did or supplied when it comes to attempting so as to add complexity. You could not get individuals to speak about not simply the narrative features, however the craft features of the movie. All the aesthetic selections that go into making a movie that we had been doing in our movie, individuals assumed it was one way or the other unintentional, or that it was simply all there already. That we did not make the picture ourselves. 

I labored so arduous on the movie, aesthetically, to make each body, only a full image of data. And on the time, it made me marvel if it was all not seen? What precisely is happening right here that each one individuals need to speak about is the extermination of Black males, when in reality that is the movie about two ladies who survive and thrive and have a fairly attention-grabbing life and objectives for themselves? I am undecided that a lot has modified within the methods by which the work and labor of Black girls within the arts and movie is nearly reflexively diminished. You’ll be able to have a look at how “The Lady King” was virtually completely ignored, directorially, this previous 12 months. 

And it completely was one of the crucial intricately directed movies of the 12 months, and it wasn’t handled as such.

Precisely. Somebody only recently wrote an article about Beyonce and the way there is no argument that she’s like one of many biggest pop stars who ever lived. I am not even a fan, however I can not hate on a sister, as a result of she is sensible at what she does. It is simply not an argument, however the Grammys simply cannot convey themselves to present her a Greatest Album. They can not convey themselves to do it.

I do not understand how you have a look at “Lemonade” and all the pieces she did with that, from the music and the lyrics and storytelling to the visuals, and never say it was the very best album of the 12 months. That is wild.

It is embarrassing. “Drylongso” was made with scotch tape and glue and spit, and love. All on the sides, it is very frayed. I used to be very conscious of that. However loads of different impartial movies had been, too. So truthfully, I used to be actually stunned by how unwilling individuals had been to even simply acknowledge the craft that did exist in it. I do not know why I used to be stunned as a result of such as you stated, Ayoka was ignored. My good friend Zeinabu irene Davis made a tremendous movie referred to as “Compensation.”

I really like that movie a lot. That’s a type of movies, you watch it and you are like, how is that this not heralded as a masterpiece from the final 30 years? 

Exactly. And that is what was happening throughout me on the time. We had been simply, you already know, actually clear in regards to the system and its shortcomings. I want to say that it’s modified—and it has modified just a little bit. However when Gina Prince-Bythewood would not get even a nod or a nomination for her work, then we all know that we’re just about again in the identical scenario. 

Yeah. And it feels, possibly there’s hope as a result of there’s extra dialog round it now. However on the identical time, it is like there have been conversations each decade. 

Oh, yeah, it is cyclical. And in addition Lesley Harris with “Simply One other Lady on the I.R.T.” and earlier than that Kathleen Collins’ “Dropping Floor.” These are the movies that informed me that this was potential. My hope was that there would have been extra infrastructure throughout the Black group to critically interact new movies. However that wasn’t potential at the moment both. Actually simply making the movie was one thing that I knew I may do due to these different actually, actually sensible artists that had accomplished it earlier than me.

With so many of those movies coming again accessible – clearly now your movie has this lovely restoration taking part in in theaters, final 12 months “Alma’s Rainbow” was restored and launched, there’s a brand new 4K restoration and Blu-ray of “Simply One other Lady on the I.R.T.”—do you suppose that maybe by having these movies extra extensively accessible, youthful girls can be impressed to maintain combating the battle and try to work inside this method?

I believe it actually helps to have the movies accessible. I do know for myself, when all of the LA Rise up movies had been lastly launched, I actually wept. As a result of I assumed, what would I’ve recognized or what would I’ve been ready to consider if I’ve seen these movies after I wanted to? It’s extremely a lot about gaining access to this catalog of aesthetic selections which might be so vital to any artist.

I do not need to have to take a look at a Scorsese film and ignore all the scenes the place he is calling somebody the N-word simply to learn to construct a shot in a sequence. I do not need to must gas myself that means. There’s lots to be realized from him, and there is additionally lots that possibly is of no use to somebody like me. I believe that the bigger the reserve of movies by filmmakers, who consider Black individuals as individuals and never as plots or in simply plot phrases or like disposable flesh, which is mainly the usual in Hollywood, then I believe the higher it’s for younger filmmakers to know the best way to render our lives and our tales. 

The 4K restoration of “Drylongso” opens on the Movie at Lincoln Heart on March seventeenth, with a nationwide rollout to observe.