The Last Black Man in San Francisco!

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!

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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

 

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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/

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