#FrancisOnFilm: Last Black Man in SF

24 July 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the best films I’ve seen recently. [SPOILERS BELOW!] It was my favorite from this year’s Sundance, where it won the best director award for Joe Talbot and a special jury award for creative collaboration. It deserves to be seen nationwide, not just by people in San Francisco who care about the future of a city that was once one of the country’s most diverse. The scenes of skateboarding around San Francisco are magical, and the offhand remark “you’re not allowed to hate a city you don’t love” perfectly captures the sensibilities of someone who deeply loves his city even as it is changing.


Beyond its visual beauty and portrait of friendship, what I can’t forget from the film is how it portrays identity modulated against a backdrop of history. Jimmie Fails, one of the lead characters of the film, has formed his identity around a Victorian in the Fillmore district, which he believes to have been built by his grandfather in the 1940s. Without permission from the owners, Fails carefully repaints the home’s trim and he is shocked when the home is put up for sale in an estate controversy. With his friend Montgomery, Fails tries to keep the home from being sold. The two even move in for a time, bringing furniture Jimmie’s family had held onto from when his grandfather lived in the home. Jimmie sees himself as the moral, even if not the legal, owner of the home. His belief that his grandfather built the home is constitutive of Jimmie’s sense of who he is, where he came from, and why he still belongs in San Francisco. Building is creating, contributing a home of beauty, not merely existing or inhabiting.


But Jimmie’s identity is built on half-truths. Yes, his grandfather owned the home for a time in the 1940s. That’s when the Fillmore was becoming a center of African-American culture as blacks moved up from the south seeking employment in the shipyards and war industries. Homes in the Fillmore were very cheap then, to a significant extent because the Japanese families that had lived in parts of the area had been relocated to Exclusion Act camps. In the decades after World War II, the Fillmore black community fell victim to relocation, too—this time in the form of urban renewal. Racism played a role as well—because of redlining, homeowners in the area were unable to get the loans needed to refurbish dilapidated structures. Racism in the form of the Exclusion Act likely played a role both in Jimmie’s grandfather’s ability to purchase the home and in the family’s eventual inability to keep it. But the home was not the loving creation of Jimmie’s grandfather, his addition to the beauty of the city.


So how should we think about identities fashioned from historical half-truths? What does it mean to respect Jimmie in this context? Should we take Jimmie as he understands himself, a wrongly dispossessed descendent of the home’s original creator? Or as a lovable fool, living harmlessly on a myth, at least until he squats on property owned by others? Should we try to disabuse him of his beliefs about his grandfather? Do any obligations we have to Jimmie rest on his identity as he understands it, or may we ignore claims about who he is that rely on mythical understandings? And how should the entangled racial histories of the Fillmore affect our attitudes towards Jimmie’s identity conception?


Although rooted in histories of injustice, Jimmie’s identity has nothing pernicious about it. His subjective sense of who he is does not relate to harm to others. His sense of self does pose difficult ethical questions for his friends about how to respond supportively when the difficult world of property rights and evictions closes in. But it does not implicate anyone in furthering racial injustice: just the converse, it involves working out responses to one strand of how these injustices may play out.


Respecting Jimmie’s subjective sense of identity is thus quite different from respecting identity claims that deny the identity of others. Claims of religious identity that relegate non-believers to hell, claims that heterosexual identity is normal, or views of disabilities as monstrous or subhuman are examples. In a recent episode of Philosophy Talk, Ken and Ray raised questions about respect for identities such as these in exploring the limits of tolerance. Their guest, Regina Rini, maintained that respect for persons obligates us to consider seriously the reasons of others with whom we have deep moral disagreements. But she placed the outer limits of this respect at asserting views that deny the other’s very identity. 


Some of the most poignant and compelling scenes in Last Black Man occur when others challenge the claims about his grandfather on which Jimmie’s conception of his identity rests. The film handles Jimmie’s friends’ responses with exquisite gentleness. As a viewer, I was left with a sense of urgency about finding ways for Jimmie to continue to hold his identity as a black man deeply rooted in San Francisco’s history, once his beliefs about his grandfather’s contributions were severed and he was evicted from the home he cherished. The film explores critical questions about whether and how respect for persons requires addressing erosion of the conditions on which identity claims rest—erosion that so clearly has been and is continuing to occur for some communities in San Francisco.


These difficult questions about respect for identity matter, and not just because we live in an age of identity politics. Claims to respect identity have moral force on views such as Rini’s, because they reflect the deepest aspects of the person. Identity claims are only eroded, on her view, when they build in failures of reciprocal respect. An extensive literature is developing about claims to white identity and whether they reflect such failures. To take one of the most recent examples, in White Identity Politics (Cambridge University Press 2019), Ashley Jardina argues that white identity and racial resentment are different phenomena and have been conflated. One of her conclusions is that understanding the current situation of U.S. democracy will fail without recognizing that approximately 30-40% of people in the U.S. strongly identify with other whites and believe in the importance of white solidarity against perceived threats of unfair treatment. Yet Jardina and many other writers about white identity are clearly aware of the historical injustices from which this identity emerged and which continue to support it.


Last Black Man depicts the importance of taking identity seriously while detaching it from myth and recognizing the injustices it may foster.