Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 10, 2019 3:32 am 
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About a house

The fifth-generation (white) San Franciscan Joe Talbot's handsome and heartfelt debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is built out of material both passionate and insubstantial: the actual experience of his longtime friend Jimmie Fails. Jimmie, who though a non-actor forcefully plays himself in the movie, has had a life emblematic of African Americans in the beloved city by the Bay. It's an experience of disenfranchisement and marginalization, centered around a property that was never really his, but with which he deeply identified: a distinctive San Francisco Victorian house on Golden Gate Avenue. There are moments that are magical, or at least very personal, in this film. The trouble is that is is made of flash and filigree. It's action is desultory. It winds up seeming as marginalized and insubstantial as its protagonists' lives.

Last Black Man has been showered with praise and it may seem churlish to object. But I feel the same "disappointing blandness" of which Richard Brody speaks in his online New Yorker review.

The fault is not particularly in the two main characters, Fails (played by himself), his best friend Montgomery Allen (the suddenly very busy actor Jonathan Majors), and Allen's blind daddy (played by the venerable Danny Glover). But the main character may really be the house, a tall Victorian on Golden Gate, that Jimmie Fails lets his life revolve around, even though his hold on it is tenuous in the extreme. It used to belong to Japanese Americans. During World War II that whole population was forcibly removed, robbed of their properties and livelihoods, and placed in internment camps. The house on Golden Gate was on the edges of what's now called Japan Town. Then, Jimmie's father took it over. Only Jimmie clings with monotonous stubbornness to the notion that this wasn't an act of appropriation on his father's part, that in 1946 his father himself constructed the house from scratch, lintel by lintel.

The larger story of this film is of the long-waning, now almost invisible African American population of San Francisco. Once there were many in the Fillmore district. A large swathe of that was cleared and black people moved away. The sketchy status of black people in town is alluded to in a little movie that was seen and talked about at the 2008 San Francisco Film Festival about a sophisticated middle-class man and woman who spend an unexpected day together in the City following a drunken one-night stand. It was called Medicine for Melancholy . The director was Barry Jenkins, whose stunning followup, Moonlight, no one would have expected from this understated but memorable effort.

As The Last Black Man in San Francisco begins, the house on Golden Gate has been occupied for years by an older white couple. Later, for some reason, they vacate the premises. Jimmie and Mont move in as squatters. (Grandpa Allen lives in the notably polluted zone of Bayview-Hunters Point.)It turns out most of the furniture Jimiey's family used in the house has been kept in storage, So they move that in too, planning to establish squatters' rights over the property. They play with the possibilities of how this might work. There are such rights, but it seems Jimmie would have to succeed in occupying the place for five years, paying all the utilities and taxes, for this to work. That's not really going to happen. A realtor takes over the house while Jimmie and Mont are not looking, dumps all the furnishings out on the street. Jimmie is faithful to his dream, though. His persistence is touching, if misdirected. Amid the whimsy of this tale, many serious issues of black in America are referenced. Jimmie is a victim of local marginalization, though ostensibly the unreachability of this nice old Victorian house speaks of gentrification. And that, as Manohla Dargis says in her New York Times review, may be simply seen as "white colonization."

The most moving (and disheartening) moment of the film is to see the interior of the house, which had seemed so cozy and lived-in with Jimmie's family objects, stripped and painted white and "staged" in realtor style with minimal, motley decorations to bemuse - or more precisely, avoid distracting - potential (millionaire) buyers trooping through. It's suggested that the value of the house is now about $4 million. There is no more vivid proof of the life a house can have, and lose, at the hand of exploiters, than the three stages of the house on Golden Gate seen from inside. All the moments between Jimmie and Mont and Grandpa Allen (Glover), charming and real though they are, tend to fade. The difficulty is in building a whole feature film around the fortunes of an evanescent real estate aspiration.

I do remember Jimmie's skateboard, though. It reminded me of a time long ago when I lived in the Hayes Valley, among "matchstick" Victorians, and a young black man in the neighborhood, whose efforts to find meaningful work had all come to nought, spent three months skateboarding all over the city. He seemed unusually healthy and happy. He and his wife had a very young son. And he had an "accident" and killed himself with a rifle to the head. There's a story for you.

This earnest and sincere but at times too fanciful effort may lead on to other successes for the filmmakers, given the welcome it has gotten. It tends to fade in comparison to the two African American and Oakland-centered films of last year, Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You and Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting. All three films, whatever their occasional faults, are strong calling cards for Afro-centered Bay Area filmmaking with a distinctive local flavor.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, 120 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2019 and opened in theaters June 7. Watched at the historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland where, slightly to my surprise, there was applause when some derogatory remarks about San Francisco were made.


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