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.

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]