There are few opinions about film that I trust more than Holland Gallagher, despite him being on the wrong side of the “Great Marvel Cinematic Universe debate.” So when he shared his glowing review of The Last Black Man in San Fransisco, I vaulted it to the top of my priority list. Durham is fortunate to have an institution like Carolina Theatre to host films not on the “will this crack $1 billion dollars at the box office” list. A group of us saw the film on Friday night. I’ll save the movie review for a future podcast with Holland. In short, I haven’t cried that much in a long time.
The film follows the friendship of two young Black men in San Fransisco, Jimmie and Mont, and their burning desire to preserve a lifestyle, through physical locations and performance art, that is slowly slipping between their fingers in an ever-changing city facing gentrification and changes to its demographic make-up.
For medium-to-long term residents of Durham, this is a familiar feeling. I thought Nathan Heller summed up the films parallels in his review for the New Yorker:
“In the world of the film, as in real life, everyone is bound by a common anxiety, and the movie gently suggests that many middle-class San Franciscans can see aspects of their own displacement panic in the black experience of Jimmie Fails. The fear is not just that you’ll lose your place in town but that the place will lose all memory of you.”
Reading this, you might say to yourself that anyone who cares that much about a city remembering them is egomaniacal, but when you’ve tethered yourself to a place so deeply, it’s easy to get lost in its successes and failures and make them your own. At Runaway, I believed that we had the city and its future in the palm of our hands. Everything we did was to promote and sustain the Durham that we had grown to love since birth. When that journey ended for me, it felt like I had failed. Not just myself, but anyone who experienced this city the way I did. Durham and Justin Laidlaw were synonymous. Who was I without it? During one of the many moving exchanges between characters, Jimmie’s Aunt Wanda is the first to explain to him that his value is not measured by his hometown. “San Fransisco needs you more than you need it.”
Is that true, Durham?
Until recently, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. DeFacto and Johnny always talk about me being the unofficial mayor of Durham. It’s a fun joke but it’s a reminder that I am Durham, through and through. Any other version of the story seems impossible. I started to believe that narrative myself. I was trapped in a place that has brought me so much joy but that I couldn’t escape, even if I wanted to.
We never had Durham in our hands. We were just able to carve out our small little plot of land and hold on tight for as long as possible. In The Last Black Man in San Fransisco, Jimmie is fighting for his own plot of land; a house that his grandfather built in 1946. Like Jimmie, the city has changed around us in ways that are antithetical to the memories we’ve maintained all these years. You put your soul into something only to have your expectations fall short. The things we’ve cherished will be washed away by the rising tides of gentrification and capitalism, and that feels wrong.
Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene that resonated with me as I think about how my own experience in Durham has evolved. As Jimmie reconciles his shortcomings while taking a ride on the rail car, he overhears two young female tech employees complaining about trivial things and how they “hate” San Fransisco. Jimmie pushes back, telling them, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
Well, I love you, Durham. I doubt I’ll ever hate you. But I am more than just the physical homes I’ve occupied here.
You need me more than I need you.