Watching ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ as a Palestinian-American

Where does the connection to a place come from when you’ve never touched it?

Fargo Tbakhi
Nov 15, 2019 · 10 min read
Illustration by Johnalynn Holland

OnOn 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?

TThe 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 after he and his father were displaced from their home in the city in the 90’s, one that Jimmie’s grandfather allegedly built in 1946. Now, Jimmie and his friend Montgomery (a swoon-worthy Johnathan Majors) go every other week to care for the house, to the irritation of its current, white, owners. When those owners are forced out in an estate dispute, and the enormous, gorgeous house is left empty, Jimmie and Mont decide to move in.

It’s easy to imagine Jimmie Fails feeling memory rain down inside his head, the way a wall collapses, once he makes this aching return. You can almost see it happening to his body: laying on the attic floor, cigarette smoke drifting like a prayer towards a ceiling he hasn’t seen in twenty years. The California sun meanders through the windows, particles of dust dancing inside its attentive light; once Jimmie is back inside, the house can’t seem to help but show itself off for him. The light welcomes him back.

By the film’s end, we have learned that the house was not, in fact, built by Jimmie’s grandfather. The house is taken by a shitty, white, faux-woke real estate agent. We have been reminded that, as Bobby (played by Mike Epps) notes, “you never really own shit.” And so, our myths troubled, we move into twilight — into the complicated, ambiguous space between day and night.

Ultimately, Jimmie fails. And still, I would trade anything to be in his place: lying on my back, smoking, in my grandfather’s house. Home again, if only for a moment.

InIn 1967, my family’s home in Al Khalil (Hebron) was occupied by the Israeli army. Today, our city is one of the most potent examples of apartheid in the world. My grandfather fought against settler gangs in the years leading up the Nakba in 1948, when the creation of Israel displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from our ancestral homes. In ’67, a number of Tbakhis fled to Jordan, where my father was raised, and where he lives now.

The way that I relate to Palestine, as a child of the diaspora generations removed from the soil, is complicated. Where does the connection to a place come from when you’ve never touched it? My American passport grants me an enormous privilege which other diasporic Palestinians don’t have, though Israel routinely denies entry to Palestinians even with an American passport. I remain a product of our displacement: if not for colonization, I might be somewhere in Al Khalil right now, Arabic comfortable on my tongue. And that pain lingers. When Jimmie tells his father he’s squatting in the house his father lost, Jimmie Sr. gets very quiet for a moment, and then curtly dismisses any talk of the house. Later, when Jimmie Sr. visits the house, he lets out a deep sigh, like he’s been holding his breath for two decades. In conversations with my father, I’ve heard the pain and shame and longing in that first scene; I’ve never heard that pent up breath released.

I wonder what the feeling of being home might be like. For me, and for the millions of other displaced Palestinians who are forced into these tenuous relations to a place that means everything to us. In some ways, through our art, our culture, and our resistances, we all engage, like Jimmie, in tending the home that was taken from us. We paint the walls, water the garden, all in the firm belief that one day, we’ll be back. For now, we can only ensure that there is still home to come back to. We can only remember, fiercely.

WWatching The Last Black Man in San Francisco as a Palestinian brings into sharp relief the relationship between colonization and gentrification, as two manifestations of the same ideological understandings. The hierarchies of the city and the state bear down with twin measures of brutality on their marginalized communities. Discriminatory, racist economic policies in San Francisco mean that the city’s black population has declined from 13% in 1970 to just 5% today; Israel’s ever-increasing violence means that my kin are unable to remain on their land. As I write this, Israeli forces have begun forced demolitions of over 100 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Indigenous communities in the United States continue to have their ancestral land stolen and occupied, and continue to be subject to rampant state violence. Communities across the world face parallel violence, as colonial power and capitalism work to force them from their homes.

How can we continue loving places that have been so violently colonized that they are unable to love us back? So often this question is asked by people who have not faced the kind of encompassing violent displacement that we have, and who don’t seem to understand how a body, a person, a history, a people might be so deeply connected to a place. As Jimmie points out to a white woman on the bus who says she hates San Francisco, “You’re not allowed to hate it unless you’ve loved it.” I thought of these shared legacies of displacement and resistance while I watched. But I also thought of something else — some dangerous, awful fear that lurks in the smallest corners of my body:

What if we fail?

These cities, these houses, the movie says, belong to those who built them, whose lives are embodied within them, and who have been forced out of them. A remarkable sequence at the beginning of The Last Black Man in San Francisco cross-cuts between Jimmie’s and Mont’s bodies and the houses of San Francisco, literalizing the ways that the labor of black bodies is present in homes occupied by white ones. Kanafani makes a similar association, while Said and his wife Safiyya sit in the house they made into a home that now holds Israeli settlers. The things we built got stolen, one way or another. So we resist, we fight, we make our way back.

And we lose. Sometimes it seems like we always lose.

InIn Joy Harjo’s poem “Sunrise,” she writes the lines: “we struggled with a monster and lost.” I remember reading those words for the first time and feeling something break inside me. Indigenous Palestinian resistance to the furious, unceasing force of erasure must be as furious, as unceasing. But Palestinians have been doing the vital, dangerous work of this resistance for decades, and we remain occupied, displaced, our bodies subject to violence both rhetorical and physical. And still, we continue to speak, dance, fight our way towards return. How do we live inside this endless, wonderful failure?

In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam asks us to consider failure a queer methodology for being in the world, one which opens up new forms of knowledge, togetherness, imagination. Halberstam pushes us to consider “alternative ways of knowing and being that are not unduly optimistic, but nor are they mired in nihilistic critical dead ends,” allowing us to access “traditions of political action that, while not necessarily successful in the sense of becoming dominant, do offer models of contestation, rupture, and discontinuity for the political present.” When we fail, we launch ourselves into ways of being together than oppose the logics keeping us apart; we make some mark on the world that might begin to push us somewhere else — or it might not. Living in failure is believing that we do things because they’re right, or because we want to, or because our togetherness and our histories and our homes are worth it. We don’t end the story back home, safe and secure. We don’t get to keep the house. But every time we try and fail in the pursuit of a more just world, we push at the seams of the possible.

I wonder what seams we have pushed back. I wonder, while I watch Jimmie Fails move his furniture into a home he must know he cannot keep, at what grace it is to know that you will not succeed, and to continue anyway. I wonder how I can continue to write, perform, advocate, when white American audience members come up to me afterwards and immediately reveal that they did not learn and don’t care enough to try. I wonder what might happen if we understood failure as simply another part of the fight.

At the beginning of the film, waiting for the bus, Jimmie says, “We’re not gonna make it.” Mont replies, softly, “We’ll get there.” Somewhere inside that dialectic is where I find our resistance to displacement, violence, and death. Somewhere between the strength to continue imagining justice and the grace to live knowing we might not see it. Somewhere inside that twilight tension.

HHalberstam suggests, “rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our own inevitable fantastic failures.” As I end this particular failure, I am grateful for the space this film gives me to feel through what return might be like, and what losing might be like. In the month or so since I first saw it, I’ve been listening constantly to Emile Mosseri’s gorgeous score. The lush orchestral tracks bring my body back to the feeling I had seeing Jimmie and Mont get back to the house to find their furniture piled haphazardly outside — the same feeling I get when I see photographs of Palestinians fleeing the Nakba, when I see a photo series of Palestinians who still have the keys to the homes they were forced out of more than 70 years ago. But the music also brings me back to the feeling I have when I’m video chatting my family in Jordan. When I’m reading a Darwish poem, or a George Abraham poem, or listening to 47 Soul, or eating knafeh, or wearing a keffiyeh, or watching a video of people my age and younger dancing dabke while bullets fall around them.

Returning to Haifa ends with Said and Safiyya leaving their home, and Said finding hope in his son Khalid’s vision of Palestine:

“For us, for you and me, it’s only a search for something buried beneath the dust of memories. And look what we found beneath that dust. Yet more dust. We were mistaken when we thought the homeland was only the past. For Khalid, the homeland is the future.”

Harjo’s “Sunrise” ends with the lines “and we will go/ where there’s a place for us.” The Last Black Man in San Francisco ends with Jimmie giving up, leaving the city that’s been too gentrified, too infused with power, to hold him. Montgomery stands on the dock at dusk, and imagines Jimmie, rowing on the Bay’s choppy waters, heading somewhere unknown.

I cannot help but wonder, as we are forced to demolish our own homes, as return seems to get further away even as it approaches, if this is what is left for us: an endless journey somewhere else, making and remaking home in each new place we find ourselves. And I hold in my heart, at the same time, the belief that we will make and remake our homes in the land of our ancestors, on the dirt that loves us most of all. As that oboe swells, I know: we will fight and fail our way towards something beautifully, hopelessly fragile and endlessly, heartbreakingly possible.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Fargo Tbakhi

Written by

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Fargo Tbakhi

Written by

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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