Thursday, June 13, 2019

A broken heart in a changing city

Race and gentrification provide the background for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a sweet and mournful story of loss.
Sometimes, dreams are rooted in a place —- a city, for example. Maybe even a neighborhood.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco deals with many issues, principal among them: race, gentrification and the ruthless onslaught of commercial imperatives. The movie tells a story of lost dreams by focusing on what once was an all-American symbol of stability, a house.

We'd like to think that houses once were repositories of family histories that would be passed from generation to generation. Grandpa's house always would be grandpa's house, if only in our imaginations.

In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, an African-American family's triumph involved buying a house that became a brick-and-mortar symbol of upward mobility and arrival, as well as of persistence and of sustained hope. Even if we never had seen that house, we understood its power.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco also preoccupies itself with a house -- albeit in unexpected and revealing ways. A young man and his best friend occupy a house in a once-black neighborhood that's undergoing displacement prompted by gentrification. The young man believes that his grandfather built the house in the 1940s, following the style of the grand Victorian homes of 18th century San Francisco.

Even before occupying the house, Jimmie Fails -- played by Jimmie Fails (more about that in a minute) -- and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) had been trying to spiff up the house. They've painted its trim and wondered how to salvage a garden that has gone to ruin.

The current white residents of the house aren’t happy to find the young men at work but express a reluctant tolerance about their efforts.

When those residents lose the house, the fierce winds of the real estate market gather force and we know that this project — a reclamation not only of a house but of a past —- will come to naught.

We bring a bit of real-world knowledge to the movie. When it comes to real estate, market forces can be impossible to resist. If necessary, the past will be bulldozed. We know that all too well.

Director Joe Talbot, a childhood friend of Fails, tells a story that we're tempted to see as at least autobiographical in spirit because Fails uses his real name.

The movie's events may not be literarily true but they have the ring of metaphoric truth concerning the fragmentation of family in an increasingly uprooted society.

Approaching almost everything with deadpan sincerity, Fails and Montgomery reminded me of a couple of characters from a Samuel Beckett play; they're made of flesh and blood but also, slightly abstracted.

A quasi-theatrical atmosphere is enhanced by a group of neighborhood street people that serves as a Greek chorus for the story. Fails and Montgomery interact with them —- neither entirely separated from them nor entirely part of the group, either.

Most of the movie involves the efforts of the two young men to establish a home in a property they don’t own —- at least not in the conventional sense. But as the story progresses, you may find yourself thinking about issues of ownership and territory. Could there be another meaning of ownership at work here?

Talbot populates the movie with San Francisco characters and eccentricities. Danny Glover appears as Montgomery's blind grandfather; Rob Morgan plays Jimmie's embittered father; and Tichina Arnold portrays his aunt. Though sometimes tenuous, these family connections aren't lost. Jimmie grew up in various squats and in group homes.

And, then, there's the naked man at a bus stop, but I leave that for you to discover.

Emile Mosseri's musical score perfectly fits a movie that’s poetic, mournful, scrappy and sweet.

Talbot has trouble bringing the movie to a close and some of his images don't qualify as perfect blends of the real and the metaphoric. But the feeling here is one of love: for a city, for a longed-for connection with the past, and for a sense of place. There's also the love of two friends for each other.

I want to say (and please don’t take this in a negative way) that Last Black Man made me feel as if I’d attended a memorial service that mixed both grief and a sense of release, of letting go.

Late in the movie, Jimmie listens to two young white women talk on a bus. He tells them that they have to right to hate the city unless they love it. The right to hatred must be earned. Hate upscale obliterations that have ravaged neighborhoods. Hate the stress and tensions of constant economic struggle. Hate the pollution that's choking the life out of what's left of nature.

But love the memory, even if it's romanticized, of what once was. And perhaps equally important, mourn the loss of what could have been.

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