On the first page of Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa, there’s a passage I’ve never forgotten. It comes as Said, a Palestinian forced from his home in Haifa during the Nakba, drives with his wife towards a home he hasn’t seen in twenty years:
“Then suddenly came the sound of the sea, exactly the way it used to be. Oh no, the memory did not return to him little by little. Instead, it rained down inside his head the way a stone wall collapses, the stones piling up, one upon another.”
As I sat in a darkened theater in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a long time after the credits of The Last Black Man in San Francisco had finished rolling, I felt something like the reverse of this feeling: the memory swelling in my chest not like a wall collapsing, but perhaps like one being built up. I’d just come from a stressful work trip, I was tired, and it was a late showing, but I knew that the response I was having was something more than that. Something in my body recognized an ache that the film codified into light, shadow, motion, sound. Finally I got up, wiped the tears from my face, and all I could think was: what if we can’t go home again?
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a strange, lovely, elegiac movie. It begins with an image of a young black girl, squinting upwards against bright yellow sunlight, and ends with a young black man, looking out across the bay in the dimness of twilight. For most of the movie’s runtime, it’s characterized by light, shot in ways that seem surreal at times — somehow more real than real. A friend described the feeling of emerging from the theater as akin to the moment you step out of VR. The camera asks us to consider that everything it shows us onscreen might be beautiful: the varied communal forms of resisting gentrification and displacement; skateboarding; the way a joyful scream sounds in the living room of the home your grandfather built and that you have now, finally, reclaimed as your own.
The plot, based partially on actor Jimmie Fails’ real life, follows a young black man (also named Jimmie Fails) living outside of San Francisco…