A Review of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

For our midterm paper, I watched the movie The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a recommendation from friend last year. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is absolutely brilliant. It was a movie full of scenes of a community engaging in every life next to a polluted lake, two friends riding a skateboard around their neighborhood on the outskirts of San Francisco and into the city, with challenging dialogues that are never truly explained, resulting in a viewer unknowingly uncomfortable, yet moved on an emotional level. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the true story of a man named Jimmie Fails, who also plays himself as an actor in the movie. It is a painfully written love story of belonging and love to his city, as Jimmie revisits his family’s home in San Francisco in the gentrified Fillmore district. His last name Fails is derived from a verb in the English dictionary associated with a negative outcome. As a viewer, this made me reflect on if his story is somehow already predetermined, but also made me feel that he did a beautiful job of reclaiming his own story and his family’s story at the same time. What a stunning dichotomy.

When Jimmie was younger and lived in the house, his father told him that the beautiful house was built by his grandfather, the first black man in San Francisco. The house boasts unique characteristics that feel like a childlike fantasy- an organ, secret compartments, sky-high bookshelves, a backyard garden, and witch hat roof as an architectural innovation. Jimmie grew up strongly holding on to this, as his family eventually loses the house; his family scattered. However, Jimmie held onto his truth about his grandfather as the first black man in San Francisco, as the viewer watches a twenty something Jimmie skateboard with his best friend, Mont, from the outskirts into the city to visit the house. Jimmie paints the exterior, tends to the yard, and discovers that the current owners moved out due to a sibling estate battle. Jimmie and Mont acquire furniture from a family member and move in. Eventually, the owners discover this, dumping the furniture on the curb. Jimmie and Mont move the furniture back inside and reclaim the space. They invite friends and family as Mont hosts a play to honor the life of their friend, Kofi, who is killed by gang violence. Together, Jimmie and Mont merge their lives, families, and sense of self and community into this home, in the beautiful and heartbreaking story of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

The movie was released on June 7, 2019 and won several nominations and awards. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a recent and clever take on race, climate issues, gentrification, homelessness, and other topics. Each of these issues are intertwined in the fabric of countries around the world, especially America’s current society. As we are currently witnessing in such an unprecedented time in American history, social movements are exploding in our country and gaining monumental speed. Many are irate that America’s system is simply not built for everyone.

After analyzing key concepts from our course, The Developers, the same issues that are discussed in The Last Black Man in San Francisco are also discussed in Manuel Castells’ book, Networks of Outrage and Hope, and by Mary Robinson in her book, Climate Justice (Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future). As Castells primarily discusses Tunisia’s 2011 social movement and Iceland’s revolution and social movement in the chapter Prelude to Revolution, Castells states “but their outrage came from the realization that the democratic institutions did not represent the interests of citizens because the political class had become a self-reproducing cast that was catering to the interests of the financial elite, and to the preservation of their monopoly over the state” (p. 42). As activists organize and attend protests in every U.S. state in the country, one could say that there are parallels between Castells’ statement and the current protests in America, but also the recent protests around the world for Black Lives Matter, merged with protests against America’s corrupt, unjust culture, and society.

In our class, we learn about these topics in detail, but often from separate books by individual authors. I found that The Last Black Man in San Francisco weaves all of these issues into one as Jimmie Fails and his Black experience in America. Two weeks ago, I wrote about this in my blog post, What Do I Want from White People? An Illustration on Being Black in America, which was picked up by The New York Times, The Foreign Policy Magazine, and additional news outlets. Spears (2020) stated the following:

“To be Black in America is to know that because of the color of your skin, you will consistently be denied, discriminated against, and repeatedly demand equal access to education, healthcare, housing, clean air, clean water, an impartial criminal justice system, fair lending, a plethora of other resources, and this concept called human rights. You will face discrimination and inequality. Generational trauma. You tell me what is peace of mind?” (p. 1-2).

The Last Black Man in San Francisco does a great job of displaying these points. When Jimmie attempts to buy back his family’s house, the realtor tells him the house is listed at $4 million USD. Jimmie works at an assisted living facility, while his best friend Mont works in the seafood department of a store. Neither can afford the house. An area that Jimmie identifies as his community, sense of belonging, and what he remembers as a historically black neighborhood is now frequented and lived in by white people. We watch Jimmie interact with his parents, family, and community.

His aunt holds on to their family’s possessions in her storage. A scene halfway through the movie shows Jimmie and Mont running into Jimmie’s mother on the bus. The film insinuates that Jimmie’s mother is still using and often bounces around from house to house, displaying a tongue-tied interaction of Jimmie and what the viewer may see as an estranged relationship. Jimmie interacts with his father, who has stints of homelessness in San Francisco, a U.S. city well-known for its homeless population. This is only mentioned by Jimmie’s friend who lives in his car and knows the family. Jimmie interacts with San Francisco’s homeless community often in the movie, humanizing and decriminalizing their very existence. The film placed goosebumps on my arms, as a man sings a song about San Francisco. I later found that the film’s director, Joe Talbot, “commissioned Michael Marshall to sing the song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), originally by Scott McKenzie in 1967” (Ducker). Hip hop lovers know San Francisco native, Michael Marshall, by his verse on famous rap song, I Got 5 on It (Ducker).

There are many subtle, beautiful discoveries that can be found in the movie. With a further research, the character in the movie, Kofi, is played by Jamal Trulove. Kofi’s character is killed by gang violence in the movie in front of Mont’s grandfather’s home where the group of young black men spend their time. In real life, Trulove was falsely accused of his friend’s 2007 murder, spending more than six years in jail, later suing in January 2016 (Doubek). The NPR article reads “San Francisco to Pay $13.1 Million to Man Framed by Police for Murder” (Doubek).

Additionally, The Last Black Man in San Francisco begins with a preacher speaking in front of a backdrop of a lake. The location is on the outskirts of the city of San Francisco. The homes are deteriorating, crumbling, and next to a lake that the viewer soon finds out is polluted. The scene is set as white people in hazmat suits clean up the area, and a young black girl wearing a backpack, eating a lollipop stares at a man while her mother yells at her to hurry up, as she will be late for school. Black people and children walk around uncovered, unmasked. Jimmie and his best friend, Mont, wait at the bus stop, as the preacher standing on a black crate asks:

“Why do they have on these suits and we don’t? Something going on right in our face. Y’all so stuck in those iPhones… You can’t Google what’s going on. Are y’all paying attention? Why do they have on these suits and we don’t? Why? They’re here to clean this water? Man, this water has been dirtier than the devil’s mouth for 50 years and now they want to clean it?” (The Last Black Man in San Francisco 0:47-1:55)

I immediately thought of the current global health pandemic and the disproportionate impact on African Americans and people of color.

Further investigation led me to discover that the movie is filmed at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. An online article by Chris Roberts at Curbed San Francisco states “Hunter’s Point is now an EPA Superfund site contaminated with radioactive and toxic waste that developers and city officials have been working to transform into a new neighborhood with more than 10,000 units of housing” (Roberts). Hunter’s Point was strategically a shipyard from “the end of World War II through its closure in 1974, now facing delays and a scandal of admitted fraud by an environmental contractor paid $250 million by the U.S. Navy to clean the shipyard, and allegations by environmental advocates of a cover-up” (Roberts). The Last Black Man does a great job of illustrating the stark differences between the all black residents of Hunter’s Point and white residents that only live in Downtown. An internet search for directions from Hunter’s Point to Downtown San Francisco on Google Maps shows that the distance in a 17-minute drive. Jimmie and Mont are often shown waiting for the bus in the movie, asking other black residents when the bus will arrive, and ultimately deciding to skateboard into town as a faster option.

In Climate Justice, Robinson writes about this very point- differences in socioeconomic status, income and racial disparities among people of color and whites, and climate injustice and climate discrimination in communities of residents of color. The author claims that:

“inner-city residents are also more likely to breathe dirtier air and lack access to health insurance and proper medical care. As our planet continues to warm and smoggy conditions increase, those living in low-income parts of cities will inevitably suffer the most. The poor do not have the economic conditions that allow them to be resilient in climate hazards, nor can they often choose to leave their disadvantaged areas” (Robinson, 2018, p. 32).

Watching the intricate display of climate injustice in The Last Black Man in San Francisco highlights Robinson’s points. Although, the movie was released a year after Climate Justice was published, the topic of climate injustice in communities and neighborhoods of color has been widely discussed for a long time, most recently since Hurricane Katrina. The scenes of Hunter’s Point are no different than Flint, Michigan’s current public water crisis. Robinson’s book is no different from the cries of youth activist, Amariyanna “Little Miss Flint” Copeny, known for raising awareness about the Flint Water Crisis in her community of color in Flint, MI. Copeny was born two years after Hurricane Katrina. She is now 13-years-old.

These scenes in The Last Black Man of San Francisco cover so many major points of the Black experience and the quite common experience for people of color- capitalism, housing discrimination, climate injustice, gentrification, race, homelessness, lack of resources for people of color, differences for people of color in socioeconomic status, housing, education, air, water, transportation, generational family dynamics, violence, police brutality, etc. The viewer watches how the movie does not attempt to define the issues listed above, but rather ties them together in a beautiful prose and cinematographic display of the life of Jimmie Fails. In conclusion, the climate issues, gentrification, race, homelessness, and other issues that are and currently and finally being discussed, protested, and debated in America are further defended by Robinson and Castells in our course studies. The question remains, although these topics have been debated and protested for years, written into history books, and driven into the minds of our youth, what will America choose to become after the year 2020?

References

Castells, M. (2015). Networks of outrage and hope social movements in the Internet age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Doubek, J. (2019, March 20). San Francisco To Pay $13.1 Million To Man Framed by Police For Murder. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/03/20/705019611/san-francisco-to-pay-13-1-million-to-man-framed-by-police-for-murder

Ducker, E. (2019, June 17). How the Last Black Man in San Francisco Soundtrack Reshapes the City’s Hippie Nostalgia. Retrieved from https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/the-last-black-man-in-san-francisco-soundtrack-reshapes-the-citys-hippie-nostalgia-joe-talbot-interview/

Fails, J. & Talbot, J. (Producer, director). (2019). The last black man in San Francisco. United States: Plan B Entertainment & Longshot Features.

Roberts, C. (2018, October 19). New reports suggest Navy likely spread radiation all over Hunters Point, never checked for contamination. Retrieved from https://sf.curbed.com/2018/10/19/17997464/navy-hunters-point-report-radiation-contamination-housing-cleanup

Robinson, M. (2018). Climate justice: hope, resilience, and the fight for a sustainable future. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Spears, T. (2020, May 30). What do I want from white people? (An illustration on being black in America). Retrieved from https://whatsupwithtianna.com/2020/05/30/what-do-i-want-from-white-people-an-illustration-on-being-black-in-america/

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