Reclamation and Resistance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco

There are a lot of pretty movies and series about San Francisco, like the recent hit Always Be My Maybe, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City; but there is also a growing concern about the sterilization of neighborhoods once thought to be multicultural, unique and a site of generational preservation. Childhood friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails are far too familiar with this gentrification, and they bring the experience to the big screen with The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is a young black man who sees his San Francisco neighborhood changing and disappearing before his eyes. He lives with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Montgomery’s grandfather Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). He regularly visits his childhood home, built by his grandfather in 1946, filled with memories of living there as a child. He’s so enamoured of it he goes so far as to provide unsolicited maintenance of the property, like paint the window trim of the majestic Victorian home, to the chagrin of the current white, middle class owners.

When the home owners are locked out of the house due to a family dispute, Jimmie takes the opportunity to purchase the home. Because of the fast rise of gentrification in the San Francisco area, he can’t afford it, but that doesn’t stop him. Instead, he claims squatter’s rights, and with the help of Montgomery, they move his family heirlooms in and create a household of two. Their happiness is short-lived however when the reality of the situation, a family secret, plus the constant heckling of their curbside brotherhood of frenemies and a subsequent tragedy brings everything a fever pitch.

I normally don’t review non-horror films as a rule even though I watch a breadth of genres besides horror, but this film moved me so much, I had to write about it, especially because it inadvertently broaches the topic of Afrofuturism, which is in short, a movement to include blacks, their contributions and innovations in the future.

Fails broke my heart as a displaced man looking for his roots as the world around him changed. For blacks and most people of color who aren’t normally included in the future of cities and their economics, often forced to adapt without any help, the characters of Jimmie and Montgomery are extremely important. They not only insert themselves into a house taken over by white gentrification, but create their own narrative of reclamation which is the essence of what Afrofuturism is all about. They are also unique personalities, and their pseudo-nerdiness is a contrast to their ‘hood homeboys who hide behind their masculinity; an opt out of stereotype. Jimmie refuses to let the black psyche of the house and the neighborhood disintegrate, and fights for his right to be present. This refusal of being erased in itself is an archetype of the black experience.

Montgomery (Majors) and Jimmie (Fails) walk the streets of their neighborhood. Copyright Sundance Institute.

Director Talbot and star/writer Fails, who are born and bred San Franciscans, created this project they started as teenagers. This labour of love took 5 years to make and is also a collaboration of the future: it’s possible to have a white director and a black cast using their own voices instead of a white writer assuming the actions of character of color. There has to be a point where collaborations like this happen organically and speaks to truths, much like Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames; a feminist futuristic collaboration of both queer and POC voices.

Talbot creates a beautiful tableau of the city, with the vibrancy of a whimsical storybook and the grit of true life. Both Talbot and Fails incorporate a quirk reminiscent of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson, but they make it their own, putting a unique spin on this type of storytelling. The entire cast was brilliant, including real residents from their Fillmore District neighborhood and punk legend Jello Biafra in a cameo, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Majors’ performance as Montgomery. This the first time I’ve seen him in a film, and he brings such intensity to the role that I know he’ll be someone I look out for.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an award winner at Sundance, is required viewing for its emotional portrayal gentrification and staying true to oneself, and on a deeper level, for those who has felt invisible, invalidated and a misfit.

Jordan Peele’s Us and The Impostor Within

This past weekend, Jordan Peele’s second feature film Us opened to record numbers at the box office, once again proving our confidence in his talent as well as the need for more horror. His latest contribution takes another look at (North) American culture, but this time it’s a deep dive into who we see in the mirror and what we actually are.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family are on their summer vacation. She heads to her beach home along with her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), son Jason (Evan Alex), and handsome, good-natured husband Gabe (Winston Duke). It’s a good life, but the visit to Santa Cruz, California holds some traumatic memories for her. She is tense as they meet up with friends Josh (Tim Heidecker), Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), and their twin daughters on the beach; and frantic when she loses sight of her son Jason who is transfixed by a bloodied, jumpsuit-clad man gazing into the horizon. Later she tells Gabe about an incident that left her traumatized as child when she met her double in a creepy fun house on that very beach. She feels the double is still around and watching her. That evening, her worst fear is realized when her doppelgänger, and carbon copies of Adelaide’s family, appears at their home. They are called the Tethered from an unknown underworld, and they are set to terrorize the family for a larger purpose.

Adelaide and her terrified family.

I had to collect my thoughts on Us for several days. I left the theatre feeling overwhelmed by the images flashed on the screen, like a rich meal sitting on the palate hours after consuming. I felt uncertain, wondering if this feast for the eyes was going to sit right; if I would like it and want another serving, and I’m pleased I can say yes to both. There are layers and layers of themes to be discussed, and you’ll find wonderful pieces online covering doppelgängers, the biblical passage of Jeremiah 11:11, and double consciousness, but what came to the surface for me was class and Impostor Syndrome.

First, some other thoughts: Peele’s central protagonists are members of a black family, leveling the playing field for me so I could concentrate on other aspects of the film like the narrative and subplots. I could actually relax into the experience instead of wondering in the back of my mind what it would be like to have a black performer play the role of Adelaide if Us had an all white cast. I’ve mentioned before in my review of the documentary Horror Noire that I felt a certain anxiety over black characters in horror because they fulfilled tropes and stereotypes instead of proper representation. Here, Peele provides a master class in representing black culture; normalizing it instead of mimicking stereotypes and appropriation. You can see this in his organic use of the song “I Got 5 On It” and the Howard University sweatshirt – two feasible and easily believable “black” signifiers. This middle-class black family defies Hollywood’s representation of blacks. There’s no guns, gangs or prostitutes, just family trauma. He also normalizes the fact that young Adelaide’s mother is concerned with her well-being enough to take her to a therapist instead of asking her to pray for guidance, an interesting secular aspect even though there is a larger biblical theme of doom and gloom connecting the plot of the film.

The performances were fantastic, and just what you would expect from Peele as a director. The film itself was funnier than I anticipated, with Duke’s endearing and heroically bumbling Gabe and the great chemistry between Joseph and Alex as siblings. All eyes, however, are on Nyong’o. Her skill at becoming two completely different people is boundless. From facial and body tics to genuine menace, she clearly shows her attention to detail and the love of her craft. Her duality is, of course, central to the film and affected me the most.

Spoilers from this point on!

If you’ve seen the film, you know that Adelaide was once a Tethered, and switched places with the real Adelaide, now called Red, when they were children. America is the land of opportunity where the fittest will survive, and Adelaide’s switch is a great allegory for the opportunistic mentality of people’s drive to get what they want. She got herself out of the tunnels and into the real world. As a result, Adelaide is constantly looking over her shoulder because she knows she isn’t in her rightful place, and she is truly an impostor. I’ve had that same feeling because Impostor Syndrome started early for me. Growing up in a white neighbourhood, I was faced with the guilt of not living in the community housing with the other black kids, and the perpetual knowledge that my family was treated like we weren’t supposed to be in the white neighbourhood. I felt clumsy in my portrayal of a black girl, not knowing the right way to finally be accepted because the black kids were suspicious of me, and the white kids said I really wasn’t black because I didn’t fit their white supremacist rules of blackness or class. I was playing a role in each arena and not getting it quite right, like Adelaide trying to snap in time to music.

To add to this feeling of a fraudulent existence, my mother told me to keep my head down and behave because if something went wrong, black children would be blamed first. She did this to protect her black daughters in an unforgiving world, but it was a cardinal rule that boxed me in with expectations and dread. Like Adelaide, I had to keep myself in check, worried that my carefully constructed world of avoidance wasn’t enough to protect my fraudulent roles, and wondering whether I would ever show my true self; if I even knew who I really was. I understood Adelaide protecting her status, identity and American Dream; to deal with her secret plus the weight of heading a successful black family.

Red and her doppelgänger family.

Adelaide escaped the Tethered, a forgotten people, left to fend for themselves once the government experiment they were a part of went awry. They mimicked the upside world, every move warped, with no hope of escape. This hidden society, this powerless class found a leader in Red, who saw her opportunity to rise up and revolt by planning her own revolution based on one of the few things she remembered from her childhood, Hands Across America.  This charity event to help the homeless meant well but was a bust in the end. She planned to make her version a success for her fellow Tethered and regain her identity from Adelaide, driven by her entitlement to her real life. I sympathized with Red too, since her rightful place was taken from her. This jockeying for a prime position created the ultimate showdown between a woman and her double, in a world full of hidden meanings, our darkest fears and deepest secrets. 

The scope of Us is vast, and whether you see it as a battle between our worst selves, our fears, classes, or a biblical reckoning, it’s a literal rabbit hole of self-reflection everyone should fall down and get lost in over and over again.

mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]

 

The Women of Hounds of Love (Spoilers Ahead)

In Hounds of Love, Ben Young’s first feature-length film, a murderous couple in the city of Perth, Australia, stalks teenage girls to fulfil their sexual fantasies. The acts are orchestrated by John (Stephen Curry), a sexual predator who is cold, mean and conniving. His character is riveting because Young gives you just enough to wonder about what happened to this man to make him so diabolical, but the women surrounding him are equally compelling.

The film is set in 1987, when women were still coming off the gains from first wave feminism only to be kicked back by conservatism in the Reagan era. Traditional values were revisited and shunned by women who wanted to blaze trails and be the independent people their sisters before them fought for. I’m not sure if Young took any of this into account as he wrote the film, but with this era as a backdrop, there’s an interesting theme of traditional versus the modern woman running through the story.

Keeping second-wave feminism in mind, there are two distinct representations of women in the film. We have Vicki’s mother Maggie (Susie Porter) who is gaining her independence after leaving her husband, and Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) herself, a young adult pushing the boundaries and also looking for her place in the world without any parental interference. These two characters represent the burgeoning modern woman. Evelyn (Emma Booth), John’s wife and murderous cohort, is the more traditional figure. She does the cooking, cleaning and looks after her man and his conquests, doing her wifely duties in an extreme way.

Cummings as Vicki just before she is abducted.

Maggie is spreading her wings. Newly divorced, she is starting her new life and hopes to maintain her relationship with her daughter. Divorce in the 80’s was no longer taboo, in fact, it was becoming more common at that time due to changes with laws in North America and Australia. As a child of divorce, Vicki is processing her broken family home and experiencing her rebellious teen years. She deals with it in a typical way by defying her mother, seen as the person who destroyed their family because she’s left both Vicki and her father. Vicki attempts to be her own person despite the upheaval, and even has some power over her well-meaning boyfriend as he writes her school assignments for her. Both women are making efforts to create their own identity. Evelyn, on the other hand, finds comfort in her relationship. She is John’s caretaker and literal partner in crime; the nursemaid to their victims and his dutiful wife. There is no defiance here, only the urge to serve and be wanted. The actions of all three have consequences of varying degrees, but Evelyn’s is the most extreme case by living under the façade of a traditional role while she aids and abets the criminal activities of John.

Each woman will affect one another’s lives in the most unsettling of ways. When Vicky rebels against her mother and sneaks out to go to a party, she is lured into captivity by Evelyn and John. She is tough, however, and thinks on her feet, not succumbing completely to the fear of her abduction. As Evelyn cares for her captive, she forces information out of Vicki, and becomes jealous of her when she realized John’s interest in their captive. Evelyn wants to be as defiant and desirable as the teen, and when she fails to stand up to John, wants to break Vicki’s spirit to prove John loves her more.

We find out that Evelyn comes from a history of abuse that John rescued her from, and it’s the only thing she knows. She is angry, isolated and desperate, and needs something to care about since her children from a previous relationship were taken from her, so John gives her a dog. Her dog is a replacement for the lost children and her only tie to maternal feelings. Director Young said he used the dog to create sympathy for Evelyn, and it does indeed do that as it finds a violent end. But what we must remember is that she is part and parcel with John’s evil machinations. Even though she fears him and fears losing him, she knows right from wrong and still decides to participate. It’s this sobering fact that she played a part in the deaths of their victims, and that her washing the bloodied sheets and cleaning up the crime scene is just as heinous as the act itself. She is the woman that will do anything for love.

Evelyn and Maggie are complete opposites. Evelyn represents the perversion of domestic subservience. She does as John wants, takes care of the home, and yearns to be a mother where Maggie refuses this role. Maggie moves into her own house and wants to start fresh, but the resentment felt by her husband when their daughter goes missing is a fresh wound that he picks at, blaming her for their child’s disappearance and shaming her for her independence. Maggie shows inner strength in this situation as she refuses his patronizing help, determined to find her daughter; in fact, Maggie ignores the patronizing police officers as well and carries on with the search led by her instincts.

Where Maggie stands up to her husband, John taunts Evelyn about losing her children and she takes it. Her traditional mindset in this setting is a distortion of the abuses women fight against. Top it off with John’s monstrous and manipulative patriarchal power, and you have an extreme microcosm of what traditional norms do to women who reject them. Maggie’s punishment for leaving the nuclear home is her daughter’s rape and torture.  At one point Evelyn tells Vicki she should have listened to her mother and stayed home after Vicki tells her the truth about her dog’s role and that John is just using her. Evelyn also judges Maggie even though she doesn’t know her, sneering at the broken marriage; mocking Maggie’s independence perhaps because Evelyn too has tried to leave but failed on her own. She doesn’t want to focus on the wrongs she has done to the young women they have captured, instead emboldened by falling back into John’s favour, she taunts and blames Vicki for the crimes committed against her.  It’s as if Evelyn and John feel justified in their actions because these independent women didn’t toe the line and stick with traditional roles.

Evelyn and John lord over the girls like a twisted traditional family. They punish those coming up in the new world, dominating girls and putting them in their place. They don’t put them in a shed or a dark, dank basement, instead their victims are placed in a very regular bedroom, held down with chains. It shows their arrogance and how close evil lies in seemingly safe environments. We never get to know John’s backstory or internal process, but it seems that from the relationship he has with other men, namely his drug dealer, he is the low man on the totem pole and his displeasure manifests in obsessive behaviour and manipulating, dominating, or killing women.

*************************Spoiler Alert*******************************************************

There is only so much unrealistic traditional values can affect its environment and only so far it can go with the fantasy that everyone will accept their roles. The same goes for John and Evelyn. The murderous couple’s vision of marital bliss and conservative appearance is skewed by their fervour for sex, blood and torture and they aren’t as perfect as they see themselves. Even though John calls Evelyn his “queen” and he seems to love her in a way, neighbours complaining about their toxic relationship reveals that imperfection. Eventually there has to be a breaking point and Evelyn will reach it because of her insecurities surrounding her desirability. With this crack in the façade, it’s only a matter of time before things start to crumble.

Maggie finds the neighbourhood where Vicki is being held and frantically shouts her name in the street. In this moment, Evelyn relates to Maggie’s loss as a mother and must make a decision. Egged on by Vicki’s goading, she chooses to kill John because he has denied her of her children as well. In this moment, she finally stands up to him, and becomes independent like Maggie and Vicki. Her fate is sealed but she is now free of a domineering male figure; freeing herself, and the other women around her from the torture. She is by no means a heroine, but at the same time becomes a liberator of sorts for Vicki and herself.   Her last act is cold comfort for redemption, but at least closes the circle of evil she has perpetuated.

There is so much to say about male and female relationships, women’s power and accountability in such a brutal way in this film. I have only scratched the surface, but in a nutshell, Hounds of Love is not only a terrifying psychological thriller, but an in depth look at how women who step out of prescribed roles overcome criticism, sexism and brutality with inner strength.

*Read my review of the film on Cinema Axis here.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]