surviving in the city
|Joanne McNeil||Aug 7, 2019|
There's a scene in the The Last Black Man in San Francisco that has stayed with me. I keep thinking about it. It might be less than thirty seconds on the screen, but it felt much longer. Jimmie, the title character—played by Jimmie Fails, the story is based on his life—is squatting in the old Victorian home his grandfather built. His family lost this house many years before but it was sitting empty so he moved in. Outside, he introduces himself to a man—white, as everyone in the neighborhood is now—walking his dog. It is an awkward interaction. You get the sense that the man with his dog finds Jimmie to be odd, in a quirky and naive sort of way. But the audience knows the desperation that goes unsaid—that Jimmie is internally pleading with this man, as a representative of the new San Francisco, not to write him out, not to leave him behind.
It isn't a perfect film, but what works really really works. The best parts are observant like that brief interaction. What doesn't work is a sort of hesitation from the filmmaker, and how the tension is consequently misplayed, but it doesn’t discount the general mood and honesty of the picture.
The provocation is in the title. This is about the consequences of gentrification: poverty and homelessness—not on the street, at least not yet, but sleeping on the floor next to one's best friend in a very very tiny house. I feel like I've seen dozens of stories in the media about how hard it is to live in SF on a salary of six figures. But there are cashiers, doormen, cleaners, Lyft drivers—plenty of people—who, like, Jimmie, get by on much less. How they are surviving?
The black community is also commonly written out of media stories about SF. The black community is something like six percent now; but, as this film reveals, that six percent who remain include people with deep roots. Then again, many of the best films—the best?—made in the Bay Area in the past decade or so have all come from black filmmakers (Boots Riley, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler). The director of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is white and maybe that explains some of the hesitancy. But it's a fine effort. He, and the actors, are in their twenties, and both grew up in the city. San Francisco looks dreamy and bright in this film. It is a film anticipating nostalgia, but not treacly about it. The mood seems right, even if the script doesn't always work.
“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” Jimmie says to two white women on a bus complaining about the city. Another one of the subtle and observant scenes I'm going to remember.
I read Fierce Attachments this week. I got it at the last Brazenhead salon. It seemed like the right book to pick up there, although I found myself missing whatever Michael would have said about Vivian Gornick. Good dialogue in fiction or nonfiction is so rare, and there are lines in this that I could hear fully voiced in my mind. I also appreciate her ideas about memoir as either "testament” or literature.
Nothing moved me this week quite like the memories and quotes and links pouring in in remembrance of Toni Morrison. I was particularly struck by this transcript from a speech she delivered in 1981. New to me, but it feels like every writer needs to hear it: “We need protection in the form of structure: an accessible organization that is truly representative of the diverse interests of all writers. An organization committed to the rights of the few. And we need protection in the form of clarity, a knowledge of the limits of individualism and the private, indulgent suffering it fosters. We have to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses was rejected fourteen times. I don’t like that story; I hate it. Fitzgerald burned out and could not work. Hemingway despaired and could not work. A went mad, B died in penury, C drank herself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate those stories. Great works are written in prisons and holding camps. So are stupid books. The misery does not validate the work. It outrages the sensibilities and violates the work.”
Thanks for reading.