Last year brought the summer of Oakland film; now, with 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' the attention crosses back over the Bay. (A24)
Aight, so boom: Last Thursday I’m on stage at the Grand Lake Theatre, hosting a panel discussion after a screening of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
I’m underdressed: a black T-shirt, jean jacket and a Warriors hat. I mean, the event was happening at the same time as the first game of the NBA finals, so I’m rocking the hat for a reason. But I'm missing the game because—well, I told you: I’m hosting a panel. And it’s not just any panel, but one that pushed me to look at my personal experiences inside of those same theater walls in a way that made me realize: the doorways of the Grand Lake Theatre could tell the story of my maturation into manhood.
But we weren’t there to talk about me, we were there to talk about the film. And I had some heavyweights on the set.
To my left was director Joe Talbot. Next to him sat lead actor Jimmie Fails IV and legendary actor, activist and Bay Area native Danny Glover. And on the side of Glover was actor Rob Morgan, who you might know from his role in Stranger Things or Mudbound. And at the end of the stage was film and TV star Tichina Arnold.
In the audience sat congresswoman Barbara Lee, former Oakland council member Desley Brooks and former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport. Actor Delroy Lindo was there, as well as rapper and Sorry To Bother You director Boots Riley and his father, the labor attorney Walter Riley. In fact, I was sitting right in front of the older Riley during the screening.
I took as many notes as I could in the dimly lit, fancy, Art Deco-style movie house.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is based on the real life experiences of Jimmie Fails IV (who plays the character of the same name), a native San Franciscan who wants nothing more than to regain this beautiful mammoth of a house in the Fillmore District. In the movie, the story goes that Jimmie’s father’s father was no carpenter, but managed to buy the lot and construct the building with his own hands. Due to Jimmie's father's mismanagement, the family lost the house when Jimmie was young, but he never lost his affection for the place.
Through this tale of Jimmie’s efforts to preserve family legacy, you not only get a look at a rapidly changing San Francisco, but a perspective on how the concept of home is intertwined with identity and masculinity—especially for a black man who grew up as a have-not.
Jimmie’s best friend Montgomery Allen, played by Jonathan Majors, is a quirky creative who has a front row seat to the play that is Jimmie’s life. He sees Jimmie’s broken family, the hood cats that Jimmie grew up with and Jimmie’s escape mechanism and top mode of transportation—his skateboard.
It’s Monty, as they call him, who portrays Jimmie’s experiences in his art in an effort to tell his friend: he’s much more than four walls—he’s a nuanced human being in a rapidly changing world, and that’s OK.
Does Jimmie hear that? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have heard it either.
I grew up moving every few years. Never owned property or had a family home. But Oakland is my home, much in the same way that building is Jimmie's. I don't own anything in Oakland, but, like Jimmie, I do my best to make sure the trim is painted and the perennials are pruned.
It's more than home, it's intertwined with my concept of identity, manhood, ego, id—me. Whatever you want to call it. And I shudder at the thought of having to leave here because I can’t afford a place to live.
(Now we're not talking about the film, we're talking about me.)
To watch this film in the Grand Lake Theatre meant something. It's the place where I ran out of Jurassic Park crying because I was a scared elementary school kid. It’s where I got to third base with my middle school girlfriend while we watched Shallow Hal.
I've brought in whole meals from the nearby KFC and propped open the back door to let friends in to films they couldn't afford.
I have memories of shedding tears while watching Selma with my mom on one side of the theatre, and memories of the whole audience seemingly crying in unison as we all watched Fruitvale Station on the other side—with Oscar Grant’s mom not too far from me.
So we we talked about this idea of manhood and place on the panel. The plan was to discuss more, but this concept took over the discussion.
I wanted to ask Joe Talbot, a white man, about his thought process while writing about himself as Jimmie's good friend—a role that was portrayed by a black man. I wanted to know more about the soundtrack, how live instruments and Joni Mitchell samples were chosen. And who was the genius who made sure San Francisco rap greats like Willie Hen and San Quinn had cameos?
What significance did doorways play in the film, as they seemed to serve as a mechanism to stepping into someone's world?
I wanted to ask Tichina Arnold about her outpouring of appreciation for film producer and Oakland native Khaliah Neal—who Arnold pulled to the center of the stage prior to the screening to give her the spotlight. When I saw Neal, wearing an 'East Side of Oakland' shirt, I noted that identity, place and home aren't just concepts impacting black men.
I wanted to ask Jimmie Fails IV about skating down those San Francisco hills without a stunt double.
But instead of going as I planned, the conversation went the way it was supposed to go.
Jimmie and Joe talked about how the film concept evolved from a joke, to a trailer and then a Kickstarter campaign before becoming a full-length film.
I asked Danny Glover his initial reaction when he saw the premise of the film, and he opened up his personal history book—noting nearly a century of family history in the City, and how major events, like the longshoreman strike of 1934 and WWII, are intertwined with his own tale.
The next day I was conversing with Isanaka on Twitter, letting her know I had never experienced a lesson like the one Glover offered by merging his lived experience with the seldom-told story of San Francisco's African-American history. I tagged Glover in the tweet, Glover responded with this:
But it was Tichina Arnold's words that resonated the most. “I always say, ‘Black men are everything,’” Arnold said on the topic of how important it is to show the complexities of African-American men in film.
And by everything, she meant that they—we—should be shown in totality. And that's what the film did.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco made me think about Kehinde Wiley paintings. It brought to mind Moonlight, Boyz n the Hood and Blindspotting. Flashes of photos from Gordon Parks or Devin Allen. It was the visual equivalent of a verse from Common or a James Baldwin poem.
It’s a damn good film about San Francisco, and a cold depiction of black manhood. It hit home for me, even if Oakland wasn't mentioned.
There were images that I recognized: like the joy Jimmie exuded when he finally got into the house—running around wildly until he slipped and busted his lip. And there were depictions of tense moments, like after Kofi (played by Jamal Trulove) was killed and his crew members came toe-to-toe with Jimmie for asking questions regarding the homicide, only to open up for a hug.
There weren’t any images of Pier 39 or Alcatraz. I can’t recall if they even showed the Golden Gate. Instead, The Last Black Man in San Francisco reminded us that the Fillmore was "the Harlem of the West," and made mention of the toxic water and soil due to the Navy's presence in the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood.
Cable cars were there, but that was only when we saw main character barreling down those massive SF hills on a skateboard like he runs the joint—I still want to know how he mastered that craft of navigating the City like that.
But I guess when a place is home, you just own it.
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