The Last Black Man in San Francisco
By Jay Armstrong
To say The Last Black Man in San Francisco is powerful seems cheap in comparison to its soul-flooring intellectually interrogated absolute experience of cinema as art managing to be enjoyably digestible without sacrificing a single moment of integrity. Think Crooklyn meets Synecdoche, New York with a hinted undertone of What Dreams May Come. It moved me to the point I watched it twice in theater back to back; the second viewing being equally as powerful, it is a masters class in the ability to combine substance and technique, a poetic metaphor begging to be asked, “what does this represent.” It is an all encompassing experience which will remain forever important in sustaining the traditional sacredness of cinema often pontificated about yet rarely achieved.
On the surface we get a textbook study of Spike Lee camera work put to a script. Speaking to us line by line as we feel the confusion of being born in a place one did not create, strengthened and anchored by ones definition through a location which shifts in disregard for our pale-knuckled grasp to keep it from changing, all while the question spins around us over and over as to why.
At the heart of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a story about nationalism–an unblinking stare into the cold dark eyes of our reality as we face race and gentrification. Director Joe Talbott understands the urgency to sense a purpose of belonging, the need to preserve our belief of continued progress down our deep rooted lines of tradition. He understands the utter heartbreak of American propaganda seen as we step out from below its shadow in this moment where life and time move so fast to exist without those anchors in our reality we feel helpless at finding a true appraisal of where we stand, better yet what our existence means, as the truth of the foundation we attempt to step out positively from crumbles beneath us all. Talbott has found beauty in that confusion, reminding us the greatest art does not resolve, it merely walks beside us as we find our way. Of recent films Mid-90’s and Blindspotting have been terrific efforts at building us up for this crescendo of reflective understanding.
Although it masquerades early on as a retelling of sorts in duel character dynamics similar to Of Mice and Men and Good Time, ultimately it is a microscopic look at every individual character as a multidimensional enigmatic piece of importance; San Francisco as lens of America drawing it all into precise focus as the film concludes, stating firmly it is not our place as individuals to sustain the ethos further, though we lack the power to do anything beyond existing as ourselves, that too bares a cost on the ALL. There are no vacuums in which our personal choices lie without affect, islands exist no more on which we might escape. The Last Black Man in San Francisco offers no answers just profound redemption through our confusion. Speaking directly to it words of wise comfort; it is acceptable not knowing the way. It is acceptable to bare the burden of scars. It is acceptable to feel angry. It is acceptable to struggle with the truth. In the end the dust we kick up in circles will settle and we must move on as all who were great before us had to as well; not down a path backwards facing the past, no instead we must step into the unknown confusion with merely our flashlights and our love going boldly into that dark night on our way to the dawn without promise of purpose or the helping hand of heritage.
Jonathan Majors will have earned every look coming his way when the awards smoke starts to rise with his name as best supporting actor. He is the true light to the film; intense yet minimalistic, falling into the scenery time and again only to stake us to the moment with superiority for the last twenty minutes. Mike Epps, Tichina Arnold, Finn Wittrock, and Jamal Trulove are powerful in their brief importance. Jello Biafra’s cameo as a Segway riding tour guide warmed me through the soul. Danny Glover feels flat only through the typical power we expect from him– this plays into the film as well. It is one thing to write and then direct a film, shaping a vision the way Talbott has is not meant to be devalued while pointing out to co-write and star in a film the way Jimmy Fails has is a weight most actor/writers fail miserably in their attempt; Major’s may be the outstanding revelation, let us not overlook how it takes Fails holding it all together for it all to happen.
Through my second viewing I was given appropriate space to appreciate the religious attention to detail Talbott put into this film. Ari Aster will get more discussion for what was accomplished on Midsommar no doubt but only the foolish find films to be compared in competition. It is a strong appreciation we would all be better for if we were to see two widely accepted films going beyond expectation to give beauty where lesser directors skip out on (notable attention to details seen on screen are the more obvious signs for “Manifest Realty” hung on for-sale buildings down to the subtle use of playbills from important yet nearly forgotten plays tacked up around the scenes in the bedroom of Majors). Every frame of the film speaks to the great idea sought expressed, even if one is watching for entertainment only, you are taking those in through the authenticity it gives to each moment subconsciously.
Another notable about Midsommar in comparison is that although the two films are masterpieces in opposing camps of genre both directors at the same moment are making an articulate statement with wildly similar words on our place in experiences beyond our control–politically/economically and the helplessness even our most proactive actions feel in contrast with our seemingly futile attempts to redirect the ship with our handkerchief sails. It is no secret that the most affecting periods of artistry have come out of tumultuous brutal moments of unrest; it would take two blind eyes not to understand our current state of stasis is boiling near frenzy.
As The Last Black Man in San Franciso began, with intense focused effort I tried not to compare this work with anything of James Baldwin. How can you not though? Over every panning shot of the Golden Gate city we hear subversive silent choruses resounding Baldwin’s beautifully articulated hopes, defeats, criticism, and love for the world in which he was born, all that chased him away from America and ultimately brought him with conviction back to fight for the change he never truly got to see. Not merely relevant his words burn presence and purpose more now than ever. Leaving the film I thought over what had been stirred in me as brief wet cheeked memories of reading Baldwin’s letter to his nephew bound themselves to my psyche unshakable. Originally published in The Progressive Magazine in 1962, familiar to the majority of us through Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, if ever there were a moment worthy of including it here on Anon Magazine it is in closing, as I search for a way of explaining in some tangible sense the importance felt in the experience of being immersed in this film.
“My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” by James Baldwin:
I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.
Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child. Let him curse and I remember his falling down the cellar steps and howling and I remember with pain his tears which my hand or your grandmother’s hand so easily wiped away, but no one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No, this is not true. How bitter you are,” but I am writing this letter to you to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. I know the conditions under which you were born for I was there. Your countrymen were not there and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there and no one has ever accused her of being bitter. I suggest that the innocent check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists either, though she has been working for them all their lives.
Well, you were born; here you came, something like fifteen years ago, and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavy-hearted, yet they were not, for here you were, big James, named for me. You were a big baby. I was not. Here you were to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that. I know how black it looks today for you. It looked black that day too. Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.
I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.
It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.