By Sean Boelman
Drylongso is the type of smaller, independent film that might go under-the-radar among the month’s higher-profile Criterion releases, but must absolutely not be ignored. Cauleen Smith’s film is an exceptional work of independent filmmaking, with wonderful visuals and a challenging exploration of its themes.
The movie follows a woman who takes up an unorthodox project in her photography class: photographing Black men in the belief that they will soon become extinct. As one would expect from the premise, it’s a film that feels quite politically charged, but not in a way that is overbearing or unpalatable — simply thought-provoking.
Perhaps the most exciting reason for Drylongso to be added to the Criterion Collection is the fact that it is yet another piece of independent Black American cinema from a unique and distinctive voice. Between Drylongso and The Watermelon Woman, it’s nice to see this underseen corner of cinematic history getting the representation it deserves. Smith and Salim Akil’s exploration of Black identity is fascinating and compelling, pulling no punches when it comes to the systemic issues the community faced at the time — some of which still reverberate through society today.
All of this is set against the backdrop of a murder mystery. However, this is not a murder mystery in the Agatha Christie whodunit sort of way, nor even a procedural way, but one that interrogates the system that continues to perpetuate violence against Black people and cause so many senseless and unjust deaths.
The thread that ties the movie together is its tender character work, as well as a beautiful leading performance from Toby Smith. The film has a great deal of nuance in its emotion — even during the romantic plot that hits a few familiar beats — and it allows the movie to feel extraordinarily personal and lived-in.
The film is shot with exquisite 16mm cinematography from Andrew Black, which is lovingly and gorgeously restored in 4K by the folks at Janus Films for this release (as well as a theatrical run that has toured the art house circuit for much of the year). Considering that much of Smith’s work is in multimedia installation art — Drylongso is her first and only feature — it makes sense that this is so exquisitely beautiful.
When it comes to bonus features, the main draw of the Drylongso Criterion Collection edition is a smattering of Smith’s short films: Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron, Songs for Earth & Folk, Lessons in Semaphore, Egungun (Ancestor Can’t Find Me), Remote Viewing, and Suffolk. The disc also boasts a new conversation between Smith and scholar Michael B. Gillespie, as well as an essay by scholar Yasmina Price.
Drylongso is the type of Criterion Collection addition whose purpose is to showcase and preserve an important and underseen part of cinema history. Cinephiles should certainly pick this one up and discover an extraordinary piece of independent cinema.
The Criterion Collection edition of Drylongso releases on August 29.
The Snake Hole
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