Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Longtime friends, actor Jimmie Fails (left) and director Joe Talbot

Hunter's Point

proposed new development plan

construction site of the Chase Center, the new Golden State Warrior's stadium

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO             B+                  
USA  (121 mi)  2019 d:  Joe Talbot

Remember your truth in the city of façades.
―soapbox preacher (Willie Hen)       

Winner of the Best Directing award for a U.S. Dramatic Film at Sundance, also picking up a Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration, this is a slow and mysteriously paced morality play that may strike viewers differently, challenging our collective view of humanity, as we bear witness to ordinary yet invisible crimes taking place before our eyes, yet no one is held accountable, as the system is rigged favoring the wealthy.  While no one gets off easy here, some pay a bigger price, and that would be the effect on black families in a city that has split them up and nearly driven them completely out of the city under the banner of urban renewal and neighborhood improvement, yet what they’ve driven away is an entire culture of black people who are completely erased from history, viewed as displaced souls living in a state of limbo, historically marginalized to the poorest neighborhood in the city, a region contaminated by toxic waste, where the government clean-up drives real estate prices through the roof, making it impossible for blacks to continue to afford living in San Francisco.  The film is a long and anguished lament, a requiem for a lost dream, specifically the gentrified Fillmore District and the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhoods, both thriving blue-collar regions predominantly populated by blacks and other racial minorities, where thousands of blacks migrating from the South after WWII sought jobs in the Naval shipyard in Hunter’s Point, but the shipyard closed in 1974, with the Navy convicted for illegal disposal of hazardous substances, leaving decommissioned radioactive ships sitting dry docked in the harbor for years while a notorious toxic-spewing PG & E power plant poisoned the air until shut down in 2006, creating a highly toxic industrialized wasteland that is completely isolated from the rest of San Francisco.  A baby born here has a life expectancy a staggering 14 years less than one born in Russian Hill, plagued by generational poverty, pollution, substandard housing, declining infrastructure, gang violence, limited employment and racial discrimination, yet this region comprises more than a fifth of the city’s black population.  This is the neighborhood that writer James Baldwin once called “the San Francisco America pretends does not exist.”  Yet none of that had the impact of land-hungry developers, where of all the cities in the world this one notoriously becomes the poster child for gentrification, as well-compensated Silicon Valley tech workers surge into the city, driving up prices, completely transforming the city’s character, driving away longtime residents.  With blacks comprising more than 13% of the city’s population in 1970, that number has dropped to less than 6% today.  Between 2010 and 2015, the number of jobs created in San Francisco outnumbered the number of houses built by a ratio of more than eight to one, with the tech industry reigning supreme, where only the wealthiest could afford to live there, where the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3700, and 81% of all homes now cost at least $1 million dollars.  Catering to billionaires and tech companies (San Francisco is home to more billionaires per capita than anywhere else on Earth), the city has been averse to addressing pressing issues like homelessness, drug prevention, or much needed affordable housing.  In the contaminated clean-up areas of the shipyard (which remain an eyesore with posted yellow caution/no trespassing signs), new townhome prices range from $775,000 for 740 square feet, and $1.5 million for a two-bedroom, while just north along the bay, nothing stands more symbolically alluring than the brand new basketball arena built for the Golden State Warriors basketball team, a fixture in Oakland for more than 50 years, now moving across the bay into the glitter of this newly transformed neighborhood, yet this massive multi-billion dollar redevelopment project displaces rather than benefits existing neighborhood residents, creating 12,500 new homes, 4 million-plus square feet of office, commercial, and retail space, 300 acres of open parks, trails and fields, but not a single rental unit.           

This is simply the backdrop to the film, which may or may not be known by viewers ahead of time, but the film title says it all, based on the life of Jimmie Fails (playing himself) who follows a journey to reclaim his childhood home in a neighborhood his family can no longer afford, addressing what happened to so many other black families because of redevelopment and the lack of affordable housing.  Given a surreal twist at the opening of the film, hazardous waste is being cleaned up in the harbor with government workers wearing full protective gear while children are running free on the sidewalks, unaware of any potential health risks, where the contrast between the two is a portrait of the haves and the have-nots, as the children along with local residents are offered no protection whatsoever in a neighborhood they once called home.  This just offers a whiff of what comes next.  Conceived by two best friends from childhood, the director Joe Talbot (who is white) co-wrote a film inspired by the real-life story of his friend, Jimmie Fails (who is black), wearing the same red plaid jacket throughout, giving him an almost mythical appearance.  Accompanying him is Monty (Jonathan Majors, who is nothing less than a revelation), always seen with a pencil in his ear, jotting down notes and drawing revelatory pictures in his notebook, where the two have an unshakeable relationship built on trust, sleeping in Monty’s grandfather’s house (Danny Glover), who happens to be blind, watching old movies on TV, which turns out to be the noir thriller D.O.A. (1949) similarly set in San Francisco about a man who eerily narrates his own impending death (which may as well be the theme of the film), with Monty describing the action for his grandfather, who doesn’t miss a beat.  Outside on the curb is a group of heavily tattooed young men, a kind of Greek chorus of Hunter’s Point, offering a touch of authenticity with street commentary on everything that transpires, often getting into heated discussions among themselves, continually trash-talking, where Jimmie or Monty, targeted and derided by the group, will often break them up.  Waiting for a bus that never comes, they decide to hop onto Jimmie’s skateboard, taking a lengthy journey across town, navigating the hilly streets of the city, beautifully expressed in an extended shot from cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra that accentuates the city’s dynamic energy and diversity, much if it seen in slow motion, creating a dreamy effect, yet it’s a fascinating montage of unique aspects of the city, characterized by that individualistic bohemian element that still exists.  They end up paying a visit to an old historical Victorian house in the Fillmore District where Jimmie regularly provides the outdoor upkeep, although the kicker is the current residents get extremely angry at his presence in their home, threatening to call the cops, growing righteously indignant whenever he turns up, though Jimmie seems fixated on taking care of that home, which we learn was built by his grandfather after WWII, but the family couldn’t keep up with the payments, so Jimmie’s been through a circuitous path through the foster care system, living in group homes, spending most of his childhood away from the custody of his parents, never really having a place to call home, with his family splintered and spread all over, so he does yardwork and paint trimming to keep that house looking good, despite the owner’s objections.  Unexpectedly, the home becomes vacant due to an inheritance squabble resulting from a death in the family, where it may remain in housing court litigation for years deciphering the rightful owner.  With this fortuitous, almost fairy tale opening, Jimmie and Monty move in, making themselves squatters (who strangely have rights in California) in an otherwise empty home.

Their initial euphoria is ecstatic, like the answer to their prayers, feeling liberated, as if for the first time.  One of the more humorous scenes involves Jimmie who is touching up a 2nd floor window when an architectural tour group comes by on Segway scooters with Jello Biafra as the tour guide, (former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys), offering his own appraisal that the house is over 100 years old built in the late 19th century.  From his lofty perch upstairs, Jimmie begs to differ and sets the record straight, revealing it was hand-built by his grandfather on a lot he purchased after the war, refusing to purchase a home vacated by Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps, which seems to convince no one, but rather than create a scene, they simply move on to the next home on the tour.  It’s this kind of reality that drives the film, creating an alternate narrative, something that goes against the grain, featuring a couple of offbeat characters that exist in their own world, connected to friends and their dispersed family, but equally disconnected, where no single truth prevails, continually challenging the prevailing order, from the toxic contamination to the urban renewal, with various city officials less than candid on the subject, offering their own spin on the story, with residents continually sold short by those elected to represent them, selling out to the moneyed interests in the end, who have a way of making sure they line their own pockets.  This version of “progress” is at odds with what families experience as they’re living through these issues, with residual effects, like traumatic scars that continue to fester, where the dream never matches the reality.  Among the most potent scenes is the use of nostalgia in the song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), Michael Marshall San Francisco YouTube (3:09), an updated variation of the old Scott McKenzie song from the peace and love generation in the summer of love in 1967, San Francisco - Scott McKenzie - YouTube (3:02).  This dream gone wrong is essentially what the film is about, as all that was promised never materialized, instead it was a nightmare to live through, with other people reaping the benefits of “progress” while blacks continually lagged behind, literally driven from their homes one by one, family after family, until the film title is no longer a metaphor but an existing reality.  This is a film honoring those who grew up in this city, who lived through the experiences and survived, still holding their dreams intact against all odds.  What’s uniquely distinctive about the film is that it shows a vulnerable side of black men as friends, which goes completely off the rails of black stereotyping, creating a thoughtful and ponderous film, one that continually questions what’s taking place right before our eyes as we bear witness to an American style ethnic cleansing (mirroring what happened to Japanese-Americans), where moneyed interests are allowed to simply take what they want, irrespective of the consequences.  This film highlights those racial consequences with poetic candor, examining the black soul that’s being displaced, brilliantly expressed in a one-man show staged by Monty, a blistering monologue providing multiple points of view, becoming a haunting exposé of racial injustice that’s done legally and within the limits of the law.  It recalls the provocative Barry Jenkins film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) that followed the amorous musings of a bright and sophisticated black couple wandering the streets of San Francisco in a prolonged first date, wondering what was happening to their city then, adding the eloquent appraisal of Michelle Alexander’s subsequent book The New Jim Crow, 2010, revealing how blacks are fundamentally incarcerated and disenfranchised at levels exceeding the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.  Among those affected are Jamal Trulove, one of the Greek chorus who meets a tragic end in the film, who in real life was arrested in 2010 for the shooting death of his friend and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, spending six years in maximum security prisons until his conviction was later overturned in 2014 and Trulove was acquitted, discovering the two arresting officers “fabricated evidence and failed to disclose exculpatory material,” resulting in a $13.1 million dollar settlement from the city for wrongful arrest.  Intensely personal stories showing people continually falling through the cracks create the delicate fabric of this film, which is simply not what you’re used to seeing, told in a distinctly different way. 
Accompanying links:

The Racist Origins of San Francisco's Housing Crisis | The New ...  Lexi Pandell from The New Republic, May 31, 2019

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