Sensitive, Subversive Friendships: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You

by Daniel Garrett Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 19 minutes (4634 words)

How do you free a body of inherited associations and presumptions? How do you achieve a desired freedom, artistic, political, personal? Generation after generation may be asked the same questions—and sometimes the answers they give are the same as the people who came before them and sometimes the answers are new. One can engage, or evade, the questions one is asked by culture and history; and either response can look like freedom or foolishness, depending on the observer. I have been intrigued by the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), for its sensitivity, for its focus on the friendship of two young black men, Jimmie and Monty, and on Jimmie’s clinging to a house he sees as an ideal home, and for the hurt, hope, and humor at the film’s core. Jimmie and Monty allow each other great humanity, a rare freedom, in their friendship. Blindspotting (2018) has friendship at the center of its story too, even as it contends with individual responsibility, and the criminal justice system and police brutality. Queen and Slim (2019) goes straight at the heart of social conflict in its depiction of a first date between an ambitious young woman and a practical young man, and a police encounter that goes wrong and changes two lives. It gives us an ordinary tragedy. Sorry to Bother You (2018) has friends and lovers but is an imaginative and satirical critique of capitalism and its investment in, and exploitation of, racial difference. Those films feel very new—and yet there are films such as the historical saga Harriet (2019) and the legal drama Just Mercy (2019) that are familiar forms that are a little more predictable, not as exciting aesthetically, but still engaging, and still fulfilling a political necessity—for articulate consciousness, for models of behavior.

How do you free a body of inherited associations and presumptions? The nude figure is one strategy, as clues to social status, usually found in clothing and accessories, are more difficult to read. The sculptor Richmond Barthe created bronze busts of Booker T. Washington and Josephine Baker, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and Barthe produced more than a few nudes—figures of work and of dance, of self-love, of sport, of torture. Richmond Barthe (1909 – 1989), who had been born to an encouraging seamstress mother and reared by her and his ice deliveryman stepfather, became a student at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York; and Barthe received public recognition (fellowships, gallery shows) while still young; and he completed Boxer, a bronze of 18 ¾ inches in 1940, featuring a man stepping forward, a work read as a figure of admiration as well as desire. “Barthe subtly chipped away at prevailing racist notions that black men were all muscle and no brains by portraying his Boxer as graceful and introspective. A number of his black male figures were new types which would redefine African American visual representation,” wrote the scholar Margaret Rose Vendryes in Barthe: A Life in Sculpture (University Press of Mississippi, 2008; page 113). Barthe, who was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1946, lived for a time in the Caribbean, principally Jamaica, beginning in the late 1940s through the 1960s; and he subsequently lived in Switzerland, Italy, and California. Yet, Margaret Vendryes recognizes that often Barthe and what he represented were accepted merely as tokens. Barthe’s own later life knew financial difficulty. Subsequent artists, such as Bob Thompson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kerry James Marshall, would make various interventions in the public imagination of African-American life.

The international artist Kehinde Wiley—Los Angeles born in 1977, Wiley has studios and projects in different countries—studied when very young (age 11) at the California State University’s art conservatory, and is a graduate of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Yale University School of Art. Wiley has placed both art history and a critical, even transformative, response to it at the center of his oeuvre. Kehinde Wiley’s Sleep (2008) is a painting of a reclining muscular brown man, naked but for a white cloth draping his middle, a wall of green and yellow flowers behind him, and it is a portrait of beauty and strength. The portrait Sleep, oil on canvas, was inspired by a late 1700s painting of the god of dreams, Morpheus by Jean-Bernard Restout (himself the member of a painting dynasty), and Sleep is monumental: 132 × 300 inches. Who is sleeping? The casual observer cannot know who he is, where he lives, what he does. The repose might be read as seductive or submissive but the fact is that this is a man at rest. The image has been published—on pages 86 and 87 (plate 24)—in Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (2015), by the Brooklyn Museum with DelMonico Books – Prestel, edited by Eugenie Tsai, and featuring commentary by scholars, poets, and gallerists among its varied writers, such as Elizabeth Alexander, Jeffrey Deitch, Lewis R. Gordon, Kobena Mercer, Rebecca Walker, and Deborah Willis.

While writing about Kehinde Wiley’s large scale (30 × 144 inches) painting The Dead Christ in the Tomb (2007), in which a modern African-American man in black briefs replaces the pale Christ of a 1521 painting by the sixteenth-century Hans Holbein the Younger, Kobena Mercer, A New Republic contributor, declares, “The tragedy of the black image in Western art history was not that it got degraded as ‘other,’ but that black humanity came to be cruelly imprisoned by its own beauty as a result of a controlling gaze that constantly prevaricated between love and hate. Wiley’s figures escape capture by such master codes precisely by virtue of their hyper-real flatness, which gives them a fugitive quality that opens new possibilities for the representation of black male identities. It is significant that in Sleep (plate 24) Wiley chose to rework a painting by Jean-Bernard Restout also known as Morpheus (figure 30), for in sleep everyone gets a glimpse of the potential for human identities to morph out of history and into new future possibilities” (page 82).

Doing battle with the received ideas and images of history is nothing new for African-Americans, whether they be artists, intellectuals, writers, political activists or ordinary citizens: Frederick Douglass, Edmonia Lewis, Henry Tanner, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Zora Hurston, Augusta Savage, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison, Jacob Lawrence, James Baldwin, Faith Ringgold, Toni Morrison, Adrian Piper and so many others have been involved in that battle. Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, Sidney Poitier, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Denzel Washington and others contested and contributed to ideas and images in cinema. Consequently, it is wonderful to see that films such as Last Black Man in San Francisco, Blindspotting, and Sorry to Bother You contend with history without seeming too burdened by it—without capitulating to despair, they have moved beyond a predictable rhetoric and rage. (They can depict anger without having the art be choked by it.) They do not offer us a false freedom but they do not let us know where and how the battle has been joined. They give us glimpses of life—and of what might come to be. In Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), its story conceived by featured actor Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot, two longtime friends (one black, one white), a little girl watches a man, in a protective suit for handling hazardous materials, pick up garbage (apparently the area has known naval testing of atomic materials); and a street lecturer talks about the conditions of the area, saying, “We was put through hell to be purified.” Two friends—Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery Allen (played by Jonathan Majors)—speculate on whether the lecturer’s talk is rehearsed or improvised: “They got plans for us. Fight for your land. Fight for your home,” they hear him say, before sharing a skateboard through city streets. Jimmie and Monty stop at a 19th century multi-floored white house at 959 Golden Gate near Fillmore, one Jimmie claims as his family’s home, although his family no longer owns it. In fact, Jimmie claims his grandfather built it in the 1940s. Jimmie visits every two weeks or so, making small repairs. “Stop fixing my house,” says the woman resident.

Last Black Man in San Francisco

Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), a writer and actor, Jimmie’s friend, lives with an elder male relative, Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). Jimmie Fails has been staying with them, sleeping on a small mattress near Monty’s bed (and apparently paying half the expenses). The intimacy between Monty (Majors) and Jimmie (Fails) is perceptible and persuasive. “The acting by the two principals is impeccable, their portrait of male friendship is deeply felt,” wrote Soren Andersen in the June 17, 2019 Seattle Times. The three men watch old film noir movies together. Monty describes the action for his older relative. Monty takes notes of his observances, environmental and social; and when Monty sits in a boat, a two-eyed fish jumps out of the water into the boat—and Monty, who works in a fish mart, writes about the pollution of the water. Jimmie works at a care facility (he seems to be an orderly, or possibly a nurse, and he helps a woman change clothes). Near Monty’s house a group of young men gather, offering each other humorous insults (the dozens); and Monty tries to incorporate their speech in his work. While out together, Jimmie and Monty see a car pass and they recognize it as the car Jimmie used to live in for a time. The car, an El Dorado, belonging to Jimmie’s father, was borrowed and kept by its driver, who says, “You never own shit,” making it sound like an existential statement.

Of course, Jimmie returns to the large white house, the Victorian home, he claims; and finds that people are packing, hauling its furnishings, moving out. There, following a death, has been a family quarrel over the estate. Jimmie talks to a young real estate broker—each recognizes the school the other went to (the broker to St. Ignatius, Jimmie to Riordan)—but, of course, there is little chance that Jimmie, legally, will be able to acquire the house. He has passion, not green paper. Yet, he and Monty break into the abandoned house, happily running and screaming, moving in. They find abandoned books, some by writers they admire, and Jimmie plays music on the organ. Jimmie visits an aunt, Wanda (Tichina Arnold), to retrieve family furniture for the house (Aunt Wanda says she has everything his dad did not smoke up, alluding to a drug problem). When a tour guide points out the house’s 19th century style, Jimmie insists his grandfather designed and built it in the 1940s.

The young men who loiter and laugh near Monty’s house talk about masculinity and cowardice, mocking each other, which Monty reads as a kind of performance, to which Monty offers acting advice, citing established acting teachers. (One hears on the soundtrack Joni Mitchell’s Blue.) “You’re okay there,’ Monty says to the young man, Kofi, who is being hassled the most, which sounds to be both evaluation of performance and spiritual support.

Jimmie visits his father in Hotel Metropolis, a single-room occupancy hotel. Jimmie and his father’s talk is by turns cordial and contentious. Jimmie mentions having squatted in a warehouse with his father, after staying in the El Dorado; and his father offers squatting advice but is upset when Jimmie mentions the old white house, the lost family home. They part abruptly, and Jimmie waits at the bus stop, where a nude old white man comes and sits next to him. (Soundtrack: Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane, “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love?”) Monty has invited someone over to Jimmie’s beautiful squat, Kofi, who mentions that he and Jimmie had been together, for about a year, in a group home when they were boys, something Monty did not know. The three young men, Jimmie, Monty, and Kofi, sit in a sauna, smoking, talking. Jimmie, later, suggests Monty take a home in the house, and Monty likes the dining room for its painted ceiling and hanging lights.

When the two friends leave to go to the house Monty shares with his grandfather for some of their things, they are harassed by the corner men, including Kofi (their difference, their friendship, and their possible good fortune, seem equally appalling to the hasslers). When Monty and Jimmie talk, Monty refuses to reject the others: “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them ’cause they’re mean to me?” Monty asks. That suggests a transcendent sensitivity. Both are sad when they learn Kofi has been killed by men as part of a banal conflict. When Jimmie and Monty are evicted from the old white house on Golden Gate, due to the house’s listing as a real estate property for sale, Jimmie sees another broker—and, of course, has no assets to meet the required payment percentage of the $4 million asking price.

Monty visits the first broker they had met, and Monty sees the house deed and learns that it is older than Jimmie claims, of the 19th century, and that Jimmie’s grandfather did not build it in the 1940s. Monty writes a theatrical work, inspired by Kofi’s death and Jimmie’s obsession with the house. The two young friends persist, and move some furnishings back into the house, and prepare for a public presentation of Monty’s work (which contains a comment, a confrontation with personal history, Jimmie did not anticipate). Jimmie’s father attends Monty’s strange but impressive one-man play, as does Jimmie’s aunt, and people from the neighborhood, including those who knew Kofi. The play describes the social conflict Kofi lived with, and allows those who knew him to cite and celebrate his kindness. Monty acknowledges that Kofi could be cruel but says, ‘People aren’t only one thing’ and “Let us break the boxes” in which we put people.

Medicine for Melancholy

Barry Jenkins’s film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) was set, also, in San Francisco, focusing on the beginning relationship of two young people, both African-American, with different conceptions of their identities: the male, Micha (Wyatt Cenac), sees race as primary, and the female, Jo (Tracey Heggins), does not want race to be primary for her. Both are attractive, intelligent young people in a gentrifying city—and some of the things that interest them most can be found where the pale people are. Micha admits to both loving and hating the city. Barry Jenkins, thanks to films such as that and Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), has become one of the most interesting filmmakers in American culture. How do you free a body of inherited associations and presumptions? How do you achieve a desired freedom, artistic, political, personal? Jenkins observes social conflict with aesthetic sophistication; and, regarding Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins told writer Sophia Resnick of the Austin Chronicle, “I think both characters represent different answers I have to the same question, which I can’t even articulate… I guess if you’re a filmmaker, and you have two different points of view on the same subject, you just put them into two different characters and have them duke it out” (March 7, 2008). Exploring a complicated humanity has been the mission of Jenkins, as it has been of that of filmmakers Bill Gunn, Michael Schultz, Kathleen Collins, Bill Duke, Charles Burnett, Carl Franklin, Julie Dash, Charles Lane, Wendell Harris, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Antoine Fuqua, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Ross Williams, Dee Rees, Justin Simien, Ryan Coogler, Philip Youmans, and other motion picture artists.

Two films set in the California’s Oakland area, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, exude an energy that is recognizable for its currency. They are films that people will be able to see decades from now to understand something about the time in which they were made. Blindspotting focuses on a young man who is freed from jail into a halfway house, and is beginning to get used to freedom and discipline. He has a best friend who is impulsive, wild, and likely to get him into trouble. The film uses rap as poetry, politics, and pleasure. “Carlos Lopez Estrada’s debut feature brandishes brash exuberance and stilted storytelling tropes in roughly equal measure, yielding a result that stimulates just as it cheapens itself dramatically,” wrote reviewer Todd McCarthy, following a Sundance screening, in the January 19, 2018 Hollywood Reporter. Yet, months later, July 17, 2018, upon its general release, The Village Voice championed the movie: “Here’s the superb and daring Blindspotting, a thrilling, riotous, language-drunk elegy and celebration for this most unfixed of cities. The film, like Oakland itself, is forever evolving, always becoming some new thing just when it at last seems to have revealed its full self,” wrote critic Alan Scherstuhl, citing the picture’s comic and tender friendship, its political melodrama, its city celebration, and its aesthetic invention. Sorry to Bother You features a young man who gets a marketing job in which using a voice that sounds white gets him rewarded. His success comes with cultural and political compromises.


Blindspotting (2018), a story of interracial friendship and struggle, a drama with comedy that resorts to rap and nightmarish visions, conceived by performers Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, and directed by Carlos López Estrada, opens with a bisected screen of scenes in Oakland, California, of streets and theaters and markets and loading docks, bridges, houses, people dancing, murals, skateboarding, flags and logos, racing cars, and more. Collin (Daveed Diggs) gets instruction for his jail release and the requirements of his probation—then the story picks up again three days before his probationary period ends. Collin sits in the backseat of a car with two friends, Miles (Rafael Casal) and the driver, who has six guns in his car, an absurd threat to Collin’s freedom. Yet, Miles keeps a gun for self-protection. Collin drives Miles home in their work truck, a moving company truck; and while trying to make his curfew, Collin sees the shooting of a fleeing black man by a police officer. The shooting haunts Collin, but his precarious status—a felon skirting a probationary curfew—keeps him from reporting what he saw. He goes to work, trying to achieve some normality. Miles humorously mocks the receptionist there, someone Collin used to date. The two men help a photographer move, and look at his pictures of people, houses, and trees, before the man, Patrick (Wayne Knight), engages them in an experiment of perception—looking into each other’s eyes, which they find a bit much, considering their already close friendship. How much intimacy is too much?


Collins’s mother Nancy (Margo Hall), who likes that Oakland is getting new businesses, and better food, says Collin can stay with her for a limited time; and she gives Collin a brochure for Miles’s girlfriend Ashley and their son Sean about interacting with the police. Miles gets from Nancy a box of curling irons that he goes to a hair salon to sell on behalf of youth education (his son) and post-jail transition (Collin). Collin spends time with Val (Janina Gavankar), the moving company receptionist, the woman he used to date: he helps Val with her studies in psychology; and they discuss the ambiguity of perception, of projection (one image can be interpreted in different ways: what you do not see is your blind spot). The two, Collin and Val, care about each other still—but Val is wary of Collin and of Miles. When Collin arrives late at the halfway house, he receives a lecture: rules represent laws—he is being tested for discipline. One of Collin’s moving company colleagues recalls the brutal fight that got Collin jailed—a fight for which Val considers Miles as being an enabler, if not an instigator, rather than a restraint. Why were you in jail, asks Miles son, Sean (Ziggy Baitinger) of Collin? For being a tough guy, says Collin (Miles has been trying to make his son a tough guy).

Miles insists the two men go to a party, though it is mostly a professional networking party, held in the home of a new neighbor, a chief executive officer that a friend works for. (“The party’s at the sleek townhouse owned by a young tech-entrepreneur hotshot who works for the online music service Pandora. The crowd’s white, moneyed bohemians, symbol of the new Oakland, which Money magazine, in 2016, ranked the fourth-priciest rental market in the nation, ahead of D.C., Chicago and other cities,” noted reviewer Michael Phillips in the July 16, 2018 Chicago Tribune, describing Blindspotting as “an exuberant, brightly colored, zigzagging portrait of a city, an uneasy transformation and a friendship.”) Miles, at the party. gets into a fight over personal politics—dress, language, gentrification—with a black man. Miles’s style is misread as that of an arriviste rather than a native. Miles beats the man then draws a gun. Miles and Collin have a complicated, intense argument about loyalty, morality, and public representation. Collin thinks that Miles gets away with the behavior that everyone suspects Collin of being capable. Miles is angry that Collin did not join the fight—and Collin thinks the fight was unnecessary. They talk about what it means to belong, about what it means to be under suspicion. Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles’s girlfriend, agrees that Miles is picking the wrong fights.

Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You (2018) is funny, political, surreal, directed by Boots Riley, a hip-hop performer and activist. Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), desperate for a job, and living in the Oakland garage of a relative, Uncle Serge (Terry Crews), brings fake awards to a job interview but the manager of a Regal View call center disregards the ruse and hires him anyway. Cassius has a script to read, and calls people in different states, interrupting their lives (we are shown what he has interrupted). Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) talks to his friend and co-worker Sal (Jermaine Fowler) about his sense of incompetence. An older co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), encourages Cassius to use a white voice: comfortable, confident; and explains the different levels of sales and success. Another coworker, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), wants Cassius to join their labor movement. Cassius’s bohemian girlfriend named Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance and visual artist, is pursuing her own career and political protests, and she tries to support Cassius, but Detroit begins, as Cassius finds success, to doubt his decisions and direction. Lakeith Stanfield has appeared in Selma (2014), Get Out (2017), Crown Heights (2017), Knives Out (2019) and The Photograph (2020), the last a lovely romantic film co-starring Issa Rae; and as Cassius, Stanfield is vulnerable but determined—and his girlfriend Detroit seems both moral and opportunistic, as he is, as most people are. She does work inspired by Africa, and creates an event that allows for public cruelty, an exorcism.

Langston (Glover) suggests the most lucrative Regal View marketing sales involve something terrible. At Regal View, Cassius encounters Worry Free, a personnel and production company, that is a client of Regal View, and a subject of both television advertising and investigations. The Worry Free CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), has been accused of, and denied, abetting slavery. Armie Hammer, a suave man with a plummy voice, is fully present as Lift, giving a performance to rank with his best in The Social Network (2010), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), Call Me By Your Name (2017), and On the Basis of Sex (2018): a “gloriously freaky performance that suggests that, like Brad Pitt, he may be a character actor with leading-man looks,” according online Slate magazine’s Inkoo Kang (July 6, 2018).

Sorry to Bother You

At Regal View, Cassius’s increasing success leads him to a golden elevator, to splendor, seduction. Mister (Omari Hardwick) gives him the tour of the higher precinct. Cassius (Stanfield) makes a sales call to Japan worth $10 million on behalf of Worry Free, a work contract that employs and houses workers for the benefit of the employer. Cassius then pays the rent due his Uncle Serge (Crews) and buys a new car and moves into a new apartment. However, he and his girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) argue—she doesn’t want him crossing the established picket line, but he does. Yet, she, a cosmopolitan artist, uses her own white girl voice at her art opening. Her work has a disturbing aspect: in addition to the wall art, she does a recitation that encourages the audience to throw things at her—and they do. Cassius attends a party at Steve Lift’s estate, where Lift encourages sex and drugs and insists Cassius raps about gangster life, a cliché—Cassius does rap badly and he is applauded. When the two men meet privately, Cassius is encouraged to snort a white powder by Lift; and then Cassius sees an extraordinary sight: an animal-human hybrid. Subsequently, Cassius tries to convey what he has learned about Worry Free’s disregard for humanity, its exploitative practices, but his assertion of company ruthlessness makes the company more money.

Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace

How do you free a body of inherited associations and presumptions? How do you achieve a desired freedom, artistic, political, personal? With and through emotion and thought, realism and fantasy, through drama and satire, through costuming and nudity, artists have utilized a variety of strategies and tactics to fight old ideas and introduce new ideas into public discourse. That is so with Last Black Man in San Francisco, Blindspotting, and Sorry to Bother You—as it has been with painter Kehinde Wiley, who has claimed classical western art only to transform it, first with the inclusion of the presence of black men, then that of black women; and in the film Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace (2014), a short documentary by Jeff Dupre, Wiley’s invitation to women he met on the city streets to participate in his work is explored. Kehinde Wiley sees the history of painting as being a documentation of good fortune; and he sees in his project opportunity, and the collision of attitude and dress, an interesting tension. Wiley notes that in the past he had found many presentations of blacks to be exotic—in that they did not represent a life he knew or had observed. Some women are excited by the invitation to be painted—some decline. Where the women Wiley has selected meet haute couture is in the area of personal confidence, though he also allows for the possibility of burlesque, of satire. Wiley wanted to capture the beauty and dignity of the women, their self-possession. The women were fitted with Givenchy gowns and painted for posterity. The paintings may begin quickly, but their completion is slow, someone notes. The preparation of them for transport to, and reception by, galleries and museums is just as delicate—they must be glazed, rolled, stretched, framed. Wiley, like other artists, has continued a quest to recognize neglected beauty.

(Submitted October 27, 2020)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Film Reviews   barry jenkins   black cinema   danny glover   history   kehinde wiley   richmond barthe