Archive for June, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco!

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews on June 15, 2019 by playthell

Artist/Poet Renaldo Ricketts Dancing the Mambo on the Trocaderro

Blues for Frisco….When a Movie Captures Real Life

I just saw “The Last Black Man in San Francisco:” a beautiful, tragic, surreal, joyous, magical, heart breaking, cinematic commentary on the plight of Afro-Americans in one of America’s most beautiful affluent cities. The creation of this movie is unique and the resulting product is a work of serious art that by any objective measure is Sui Generis; we have never seen it’s like before. I suppose we could loosely categorize it as a docu-drama, but the fact that the subject of the film both wrote the story and played himself sets this work apart.

Through the trials and tribulations of Jimmy Fails and his cut buddy Mont in their attempt to secure affordable housing in the beautiful “City by the Bay,” we are provided an insiders view of the consequences for several communities that are being driven from the city due to the rise of the new class of rich technocrats spawned by the expansion of Silicon Valley firms that are changing the world economy through digitalization. This movie puts faces on and examines the life stories of the economic casualties that we usually experience only as faceless statistics.

The main classes that are affected are those that gave the city it’s soul, especially Afro-Americans and artists, who are increasingly homeless, living in groups in cramped make shift spaces, couch surfing at friends pads, living in shelters and SRO hotel rooms and cars, or being forced to leave the city altogether. What makes this movie so important is that it is a harbinger of what is to come in other cities; it is well under way in New York for instance.

As I write there is a tenant revolt underway in an attempt to force the government to restore rent protections which are scheduled to expire. My own daughter went off to college and could not afford to move back into the building where she grew up in Harlem, because of the dramatic rise in rents. Hence she finds it cheaper to live in Chicago – where she has a lovely spacious apartment in a beautiful leafy neighborhood a block from the beach – and visit New York, a city she dearly loves, a few times a month!

I have lived among the exiled artist who have been forced to flee San Francisco and resettle in across the Bay in Oakland, and I have personally witnessed their persistent feeling of insecurity as rents skyrocket in their new hometown due to the growing population pressures created by the great trek of refugees seeking shelter. And these are highly educated white folks of which I speak.

But, alas, their degrees are in the humanities; which although the life’s blood of civilization, have been devalued in a predatory capitalist marketplace that increasingly privileges the technocrat. Sadly for American society, although a technical education will equip you to make a living, it provides insufficient guidance in making a good and meaningful life.  And since it remains as true as ever that when white folks catch a cold blacks get the flu, it is fitting that the central characters in this film are Afro-American artists.

One of the things that distinguish art from mere reportage, tragic drama from agitprop, is how the story is told. Here the use of image, language, characterization and outstanding acting raises this film to the level of fine art, which is why it is playing mostly at art house theaters like the Angelica, and multi-plex theaters like The Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side – an affluent community with many well educated residents – that offers a variety of film genres ranging from action flicks to art films. I saw the movie at Lincoln Square and, sadly, there were mostly gray haired white patrons watching; very few black viewers were in the audience. And they are the one’s who need to see this movie the most.

In a way this compounds the tragedy, because what happened to the black community of Fillmore in San Francisco is happening to Harlem as I write. In fact, during it’s hey day in the Post World War II period of the mid 20th century, Fillmore was popularly known as “The Harlem of the West.” When I visited there in 2009, I was so struck by the tragedy of the vanishing Afro-American community I wrote an essay on it titled “A Visit to the Fillmore District: The Strange Case of Fillmore, A Cautionary Tale for Harlem and Black Urban Communities Everywhere!” *(see link at the bottom of this essay)

Employing the insights of historical perspective, this essay takes a close look at the plight of the Afro-American community in San Francisco that was being completely displaced, and it’s grand cultural legacy erased, by the ruthless activities of real estate speculators in an unregulated capitalist economy fueled by techno-dollars. In a moment of recognition and empathy I had a revelation and wrote:

”It seems that every time I look around there is a new white neighbor in my building. Some of them speak and try to be friendly, others act as if they have encountered a man from Mars. Longtime black residents all over Harlem are encountering the same experience, and there is a feeling that we are “losing Harlem.” However, in spite of this visible trend I found it impossible to imagine Harlem as a “post black” community…until I visited Fillmore.”

Escorted by a Black resident of the city Renaldo Ricketts – a poet. Painter, and bon vivant man about town – I met the real black community in San Francisco. A hail fellow well met, every body had love for “Rennie” as he was known to the folk. Watching him move about the city charming wise men and fools, high lifes and low lifes, white folk and black, I dubbed him “El Grand Renaldo!”

El Grande Renaldo at the Shrine of John The Prophet
Paying Homage to Saint John Coltrane!

His photograph kneeling before the Shrine of John Coltrane aka “John the Prophet” decorates the cover of that essay, and was shot during our sojourn into Fillmore. From the brothers in the barbershop to the people going bout their business on the streets, I found an acute consciousness that their community was dying, being appropriated by those with more money and the power that confers. And without fail they expressed a powerful sense of tragedy and loss. However, since I have explored this in some detail in “A Trip to the Fillmore District” I shan’t relitigate it here.

The Last Black Man in San Fancisco tells this tragic tale of dispossession, alienation and desperation very effectively in two hours. The story of the attempt by an essentially homeless black man, with the help of a close friend, trying to regain the fine Victorian house he grew up in – a house he claims his grandfather “built with his own hands in 1946,” and his father lost a half century later – take on bizarre twists and turns, and is told using the kind of modernist techniques one generally associates with live theater. In fact, the narrative structure reminds me of Ishmael Reed’s innovative dramaturgy; employing erudite poetic monologues, flash backs, symbolic imagery or visual metaphors, and a sense of the absurd that can wrest bathos from pathos and find the humor in tragedy.

The array of characters are fascinating and underscore the oft made claim that “truth is stranger than fiction/” The set design, along with panning camera explorations of the grand old house, amount to a visual love song to a bygone era of black style and elegance that lives on in Jimmy Fails memories of his boyhood. Danny Glover, who like Fails is a native San Franciscan, plays Mont’s blind grandfather with the sensitivity and emotional depth that a great actor who knows and deeply identifies with his subject can bring to a role.

The film also greatly benefits from the film makers intimate knowledge of their city in the locations that chose to shoot; emphasizing it’s marvelous hills, the centrality of the Bay, and the dream like fog that rolls over the city. The cinematography is Fabulous! There are breathtaking shots of fails riding his skateboard down steep hills, with the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in the background, and the camera angels are such that we experience the danger and the thrill of it.

This insiders view of the city is also apparent in the way they weave in scenes of exotic colorful street people, such as the down and out opera singer with a voice that sounded like it was forged on the smithy of the Gods. Although some of the eccentric characters who flash on the screen leaves the audience wondering if they are real or actors. Which is part of the exotic charm and spiritual power of this poetic, Tragi-comic, 21st century tale of two cities.

A City of Spectacular Vistas!

****************

And, finally, there is the deeply moving musical score which adds emotional gravitas to the visual images on the screen. As I write, I can hear the haunting refrains of that anthem from the halcyon Hippy days, when San Francisco was symbolized to young seekers of wisdom and truth as the birthplace of The Summer of Love. “If you come to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair,” sang a solo black male singer whose decadent surroundings suggested the death of an era….and the communities that produced it.

It is difficult to conjure the words to describe the poignant memories this film evoked in me. For I first visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love, over 50 years ago; I drove up from LA, where I had traveled from Philadelphia to visit a beautiful young lady. We were madly in love and San Francisco seemed a magical city out of a fairy tale with it’s white buildings perched on hilltops, quaint cable cars, surrounded by the beautiful waters of the San Francisco Bay, from which arose the famous fogs that enhance it’s fantasy-like ambiance. Alas, when I visit San Francisco today, I still find it breathtakingly beautiful, but the city has no soul and the magic is gone. This, alas, is what the film captures.

Still Beautiful….But The Thrill is Gone

Once his was a Mecca for Artists

 

****************

Watch a Trailer From the film

Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 13, 2019

*”A visit to the Fillmore District” @ https://commentariesonthetimes.me/2009/09/21/a-visit-to-the-fillmore-district/

Jester and Queen!

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2019 by playthell
Queen Elizabeth and The Great Pretender

Donnie Dimwit and Melanie Mannequin Visit Buckingham Palace!

It was amusing to witness the mobbed up New York real estate hustler and Moscow Candidate Donald Trump, who accidentally became US President, interacting with the Queen of England in the hallowed Halls of her palace, where the artifacts of an empire on which “the sun never set” are everywhere on display. Trump, who lived in his own version of a castle in the sky with his air head side piece Melania the Manequin, before taking up residence in the White House, harbors an imperial view of his presidency which more closely resembles the absolute rule of Nicholas II, the last of the Russian Romanov’s, than the Constitutional monarchy presided over by Queen Elizabeth II.

For the Queen reigns but dose not rule over the realm, the executive power of government resides in the hands of Theresa May, the Prime Minister. Despotic Donald, on the other hand, wishes to reign and rule over the American people without opposition, when in fact he is our servant. In our democratic republic the Constitution invests all power in the citizenry, we the people, and those who govern can do so only with our consent; as was so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence, a foundational document composed by Thomas Jefferson -arguably the most enlightened of the “Founders” – that precedes the Constitution and lays out the philosophical ideals upon which the American republic is founded. Trump, an incompetent ignoramus whose training and temperament totally unsuits him for the US presidency, constantly attacks the very pillars of American democracy. He has attacked the Courts, the opposition party in Congress, and denounced the free press as “the enemy of the people!”

Hatred of the press is a normal reaction for a shameless charlatan and compulsive liar, whom fact checkers at the Washington Post and Toronto Star have cataloged more than 10, 000 lies which have issued from his lips. His lies and self-aggrandizing rhetoric so alarmed the psychiatric community they felt a “duty to warn” the nation that our president, the most powerful man in the world who possess the launch codes to America’s Doomsday nuclear arsenal, is mentally ill and poses a grave danger to the fate of the world!

An astonishing 70, 000 psychiatrists and psychologist have signed a diagnosis of “Malignant Narcissism and Paranoia” based on his behavior in the public arena. Alas, the symptoms of these illnesses are everywhere apparent in Devious Donald’s grandiose claims for his questionable achievements as a businessman and President, his hyper-sensitivity to any criticism, and his constant claims that phantom conspirators in “the Deep State” are out to get him.

Given the diligence of British intelligence services it is a sure bet that the Queen was thoroughly briefed on every aspect of “The Donald’s” character flaws. After all, she has the highest confidence in her intelligence agencies and is not plagued by paranoid delusions that they are engaged in an effort to “sabotage” and “bring her down.” Hence the queen devised a strategy of schooling the American president without triggering his insecurities.

In a fascinating display of the diplomatic skill for which the British are world famous she used the occasion of her formal speech, and a gift of the historic “Atlantic Charter,” a joint declaration issued by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt from the deck of a battleship out in the Atlantic Ocean 1n 1941, amid the chaos of World War II, which set forth a vision for the Post War world that would serve to prevent a repeat of the tragic global conflagrations that had devastated the lives of millions twice within a generation.

Churchill and Roosevelt Issue Atlantic Charter

Putting Forth a Racist Vision of the Post War World

In her Banquet speech the Queen reminded Donnie Dimwit that defeating the German Nazi’s and their fascist allies in Italy and Japan required close cooperation between the nations who opposed them. Speaking of British US cooperation in the complex operation on D-Day, directed by the American general Dwight David Eisenhower, which would be celebrated in a couple of days, she recalled:

“As Supreme Allied Commander, he had ultimate responsibility for the execution of the Normandy landings. In his headquarters in St James’s Square – not far from Buckingham Palace – British and American officers worked closely together to plan the freedom of a continent, and it would be no exaggeration to say that millions of lives depended on their common endeavour.”

Then she turned her attention to the importance of the international institutions that were established in the post World War II period to prevent another World War issuing from Europe, an arrangement that has prevented a global war for 70 years:

“As we face the new challenges of the Twenty First Century, the anniversary of D-Day reminds us of all that our countries have achieved together. After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace.”

To reinforce the theme of Anglo-American cooperation the Queen emphasized the familial ties between Brits and Americans:
“Of course, it is not only our security which unites us; but our strong cultural links and shared heritage. Every year, there are almost four million visits by Americans to the United Kingdom, with a great number claiming British descent. And with your own Scottish ancestry, Mr President, you too have a particular connection to this country.”
Then she gave The Donald a copy of the Atlantic Charter to study.

The Queen Schools The Donald

Droppin Science  at Buckingham Palace

However, after pondering the Queen’s emphasis on their blood ties, and perusing the document, I am struck by how Eurocentric it’s perspective is, which is another way of saying the world as white folks in the West saw it. Viewed from a Third World perspective – Africa, Asia and Latin America – much of Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s declaration’s grand gluttonous phrases are hypocritical blather!

This underscores the extent to which even many highly educated white folks have failed to come to grips with their actual history, and thus have a distorted view of reality. Indeed, much of the conflict in the world today derives from a failure of white folks to learn the lessons of their history, despite all the time, effort and money they have expended on writing and teaching it. There is a simple explanation for this failure: In order to learn from history you must tell the truth!

Alas, the Atlantic Charter is pregnant with absurdities based upon racist assumptions. A telling case in point is the following assertion. Article three of the declaration says of the British and American leaders: “they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” Given the fact that virtually all the countries in Africa and Asia, the majority of mankind, was living under the colonial domination of the very European nations that made up “the grand western alliance” that had helped to defeat the Nazi’s.

Not only is the role of the Western Alliance in the victory over fascist Germany greatly exaggerated, as Soviet Russia played the major role in the victory over German fascism with the US suffering 400,000 deaths and the Russians 27 million, but millions of non-white peoples in their colonies were denied by force of arms the very rights and freedoms celebrated in the Atlantic Charter. This inconvenient fact makes their claims prima faice absurd! This hypocrisy was heightened by the fact that the British were the largest colonial oppressors on earth, and the United States of America was born in a bloody anti-colonial revolt against the British imperialist!

Furthermore, by his own admission, Adolph Hitler had adopted his master race theories from the American Eugenicist Madison Grant, Devious Donald’s fellow New Yorker and Columbia University graduate, after reading Grant’s influential racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race.” And Hitler patterned his racist immigration policies on the US National Origins Act, which was largely inspired by the Eugenicists arguments of Grant and created the border patrol on the Mexican border; allotted 86.5% of the slots to immigrants from western and northern Europe; 2.5% from all of Africa, the Middle East and Pacific islands; Chinese and Japanese were excluded, and the rest came from the Americas.

Hitler roundly praised this racist policy in his personal manifesto Mein Kemp. And Afro-Americans were still living under laws based on the Master Race thesis that served as the blueprint for Nazi laws governing the treatment of German Jews. Only in a world where white supremacy was viewed as the norm could the pious preachments of the Atlantic Charter make sense. Yet it is a pretty sure bet that even if Dumb Donald actually read the Charter, he would never arrive at this understanding of it. He is far too ignorant of history and world politics to recognize the contradictions. If most of the enlightened thought leaders in the western world fail to recognize this paradox, there is no chance that Donnie Dimwit will get it.

In any case Dumb Donald’s delusions of grandeur prevented him from from recognizing some things that should be obvious. For instance his misconception of the Trump family as American royalty led him to the pretentious suggestion that his children, who were not even invited to the ball but crashed it at American taxpayer’s expense, formally meet with the Children of the British royals for a “Next Generation” palaver, presumably to plot the future world order. However the royals – who were forced by political circumstance to be nice to the Trumps – probably share my view of them as white American trash with money; the vulgar “noveau riche.”

One need only study the body language and facial expression in a photo of Prince Harry escorting Princess wannabe Ivanka, to recognize that he resembles a carnival performer who was forced to hold his nose while he kissed a pig because it was part of the act. And the fact that the Trump family portrait from Buckingham Palace was posed in front of a sign that conspicuously prohibited “taking pictures” represents the acme of clueless absurdities.

Prince Harry and Ivanka

An Unpleasant Function of State
*****************
Trump’s Children Posing in No Photo Zone

Bumbling in Buckingham

However, we may be thankful that the scripts provided Donald the Clown were written on a level that he could comfortably handle, and he managed to muster up sufficient self-discipline to stay on script and not go off on an embarrassing ab lib. Yet it is hard to imagine that given his churlish remarks about the Mayor of London, and his impromptu rants about the American singer/actress Bett Midler, that punctuated The Donald’s sojourn on her Sceptered Isle, the Queen could see this jester as anything but a pretentious fool, a doophus dickhead who possessed none of the earthy wisdom exhibited by Court Jesters of yore.

Suffering a Pretentious Fool Gladly

********************

Watch the Queen’s Speech

***************

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 7, 2019