To the pulsing beat of Masauko Chipembere’s “Beautiful People,” a montage of Oakland flashes between zine-like, stop-motion opening credits: the Fox Theater’s Art Deco facade, wagging tail dogs behind chain-link fences, women swaying their hips. sync on the pier. Welcome to Cauleen Smith’s 1998 Dry longsoa film as joyous as it is sobering, a tribute to both the West Oakland neighborhood where it was shot and the black American idiom for which it is named.
Recently restored by Janus Films, Dry longso exudes the do-it-yourself charm of a low-budget, first-time feature (it was Smith’s MFA thesis for UCLA) while poignantly depicting the complexities of both racial and gender-related inequalities. West Oakland is decided does not a hotbed of destitution and despair, but rather home to a tight-knit working and middle-class community—a place of candy-colored houses with echoing staircases, sun-dappled sidewalks, and black-owned bookstores. Dry longso‘s heroine, Pica Sullivan (Toby Smith), is a photography student who stashes extra cash in a refrigerated Sanka can and who hangs her Bob Marley poster above a small trampoline that doubles as a nightstand for her school books and landline phone.
A friendly (if cheeky) neighborhood flâneuse, Pica comes to the rescue of Tobi (April Barnett) whose abusive boyfriend abandons her in front of the house Pica shares with her mother. “If you want, I can call someone for you,” Pica offers, her braids shining under the streetlights. Reintroduced a few scenes later, Tobi’s ribbed sweater dress has been swapped for an oversized hoodie and bandana that together hide her gender. “When I walk down the street, white people move out of the way,” explains Tobi. “And I don’t miss being called a ‘bitch’ just because I don’t talk to a boy and his friends who roll by in a car.”
The film’s feminist sympathies include compassion for both black women who endure the violence of patriarchy and the black men whose lives are endangered under white supremacy and the carceral state. “The life expectancy of black men is lower than most men in third-world countries,” Pica shares, along with other disturbing statistics, with his professor, Mr. Yamada (Salim Akil, who co-wrote the film), a kente-wearing intellectual. saddened by her poor attendance. Eschewing the 35mm methods of Yamada’s course, Pica painstakingly documents the young men of Oakland—several of whom are later killed by the infamous “West Side Slasher”—with his trusty burgundy Polaroid.
Although a few plot twists feel forced (like Tobi’s ability to take down said Slasher with a 9mm in the dark), like an artifact of the late 1990s—a decade before Obama’s presidency, before Oakland’s dramatic gentrification, and more than two decades before national protests against police brutality reached a fever pitch – Dry longso feels at once antiquated and terribly prescient. At the same time, part of the film’s brilliance is not trying to be more than it is: a film about a black female art student made by a black female art student.
For his final photography exhibit, Pica settles on the standard gallery for a vacant corner at Magnolia and 30th, assembling his Polaroids of slain young men into multimedia “shrines” of everything from rusted Schwinns to dangling mint cans. Friends and neighbors, introduced earlier in the film, gather around a barbecue and green-collar buffet, admire the portraits and exchange words. “I must be the worst student you’ve ever had,” Pica says sheepishly to Mr. Yamada when he visits her show. “No,” he replies, “just the most determined.”
Dry longso screened at Film at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 W. 65th Street, Lincoln Square, Manhattan) 17-23 March, with a national rollout to follow.