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.

Shudder Exclusive: Kuso the Anti La-La Land

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]