"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A unique and original film that is beautifully shot, dramatically compelling and painfully insightful.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, based on a story by Jimmie Fails and written and directed by Joe Talbot, is the story of Jimmie, a black man trying to reclaim his childhood house, a beautiful Victorian built by his grandfather in the 1940’s, that sits in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood. The film stars Jimmie Fails as Jimmie, with supporting turns from Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover and Mike Epps.

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Thus far, 2019 has been a pretty dismal year in terms of American film. Of the four lonely films I have recommended so far this year, all of them are foreign. Thankfully, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is like a tall, cool glass of cinematic water in the parched desert of American movies in 2019. The film, which is based upon a story created by its lead actor Jimmie Fails (who is black) and its director Joe Talbot (who is white), pulsates with a life, artistic vibrancy and intelligence that is an utter joy to behold.

On the surface the film examines gentrification in San Francisco and the consequences of it. What I really loved about the movie though is that it does not take the easy, emotionalist route in exploring this complicated issue. Although it is often lumped in as simply a racism issue, the changing face of a neighborhood is a result of a much more nuanced set of elements. For instance my white family (and extended family) were part of the white flight from Brooklyn in the 1970’s because the neighborhood was rapidly changing from Irish, Italian and Jewish to Haitian and Jamaican. It is easy to chalk this up as simply racism, but the reality is, regardless of race or ethnicity, people like to be around people who not only look like them, but have the same culture and relatively same belief system. This is why immigration is such a huge issue, it isn’t a function of racism but rather a function of cultural comfort. The same is true here in Los Angeles where black neighborhoods get really angry when white people move in because they feel the “essence” of the neighborhood is changing. That isn’t racism…it is human nature.

To the movie’s great credit it does not take the easy road in addressing this polarizing issue, but instead embraces the complexity and subtlety of it. Besides the maze that is gentrification, the film also dances through the minefield that is toxic black masculinity, black violence, myth and identity, the cancer of capitalism, self-deception, self-delusion and most especially…the importance of Truth.

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Jimmie yearns to return to the house of his childhood, which has no doubt been sanitized in his own mind. His dream of a return is fueled by his tumultuous life since leaving the house and the myth that gives meaning to the structure, namely that his grandfather built the house from the ground up in a Japanese neighborhood. Unlike the greedy white people taking over San Francisco now and pushing out minorities, Jimmie’s black grandfather didn’t steal anyone’s house, he defied racial stereotypes and oppression and created one from scratch.

Jimmie’s journey is a fascinating one, and while the actor Jimmie Fails (playing a character with the same name) is not the greatest actor in the world, he is certainly likable and does Yoeman’s work as the protagonist. Fails succeeds at being a worthy host for his two-hour narrative journey.

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The performance that I did find remarkable though was that of Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen, Jimmie’s best friend. Majors brings such a beautiful and delicate sense of humanity to Montgomery that it is mesmerizing. Montgomery is the consummate artist as he is a writer, director, actor, sketch artist, wardrobe…you name it, and because he is an artist he is motivated by only one thing…the Truth. Majors fills Allen with an off-beat but very specific and detailed intentionality that gives him an understated but undeniable charisma and power.

Danny Glover and Mike Epps have small roles in the film but do quality work in them and bring a certain level of professionalism to the cast. In general, the other supporting actors feel a little rough around the edges, but that aesthetic works well for the movie.

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Director Talbot does a tremendous job of bringing what could have been a maudlin and middling story to life with a dazzling emotional and dramatic vitality. The movie is beautifully shot as Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra do an outstanding job framing their shots and even throw in some delicious 70’s, throw-back, long shot zooms. I loved those shots as they not only gave the film a distinct look and feel but were also imbued with a much deeper, archetypal meaning.

Talbot’s direction reminded me a little bit, just a little, of Spike Lee, in that he masterfully uses music, particularly jazz and/or classical, to build both dramatic and narrative momentum. Also like Lee, he populates his story with eccentrics who never fall into stereotype or caricature, no easy feat. Unlike Lee, and to his credit, Talbot wholeheartedly embraces a narrative complexity and subtlety that forces introspection rather than accusation, and is not afraid to tell the Truth even when the Truth hurts.

Even though the director Joe Talbot is white, the story is told exclusively from a black man’s perspective. What I found intriguing about this is that Talbot establishes this fact from the opening shot and makes clear that white people are aliens…literally…as they look like astronauts walking on a distant planet. What is so refreshing about Talbot’s approach is that he keeps white people as “alien” throughout…they are, ultimately, truly unknowable to black people. Of course the reverse is true as well, but in this movie we only see the black perspective and it was refreshing because it forced all of the issues and responsibilities back onto black characters. There are no one dimensional, white villains to blame or scapegoat (unlike, for instance, in some of Spike Lee’s films, or in last year’s If Beale Street Could Talk).

In conclusion, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a gorgeous film that never takes any short cuts and never fails to challenge, captivate and illuminate. This is a smart, original, unique and extremely well made film that I highly recommend you take the time and effort to go see in the theatre.

©2019

Final Thoughts on the Game of Thrones Finale - Alternative Ending Included

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 02 seconds

Game of Thrones has come and gone and after eight seasons of turmoil has exited with a whimper and not a bang. The final episode, in keeping with the final two seasons, was underwhelming at best. The narrative felt rushed and the drama forced, and so, a show that was a powder keg of possibilities ended with a fizzle.

The finale was lackluster and the last season lacking, and I think it is important to understand why that is and how it happened. The biggest issue, and this seems to be a consensus, is that the last two seasons were rushed, with the narrative being sped up and therefore the drama not earned. It is counter intuitive, but oddly enough the dramatic momentum of the show slowed precipitously when the pace of the narrative increased over the last two seasons. Without the requisite time and space to let the characters and story marinate, simmer and then stew over a warm but not hot flame, the drama was both under done and over done at the same time. This left the story tough on the outside, which made it difficult to chew on, and cold on the inside, which made it hard to swallow, and left an unpleasant taste in your mouth and a queasy feeling in your belly when it was over.

In the recipe for drama, time is a key ingredient and it seemed to be the most lacking in the last few seasons of Game of Thrones. For example, much more time was needed for Dany to be turned into as mad a Queen as she needed to be for the resolution of the story to make dramatic sense.

By increasing the pace of the drama over the last two seasons, and this half season most especially, the show lost its focus and became more about hitting plot points necessary to end it, than in having characters make believable choices in the circumstances they found themselves. When logistics of the production are the main driving point for the arc of the narrative, then the story will crumble under the weight of its dramatic falsity.

Of course, lots of people have lots of opinions about the show and its finale. People like to bitch about things…myself included. But it is important not to let the less than stellar finale and final season undermine the enormity of what the makers of Game of Thrones achieved with this show. As I have written before, we will not see anything like this again…and so while it is fun to nit pick the negatives of the final season, we must also tip our cap to those that got so many people invested in the show in the first place.

With that said…here are my thoughts on what should have happened. Of course, the question arises, who the hell am I and why should anyone give a rat’s ass what I think should have happened to end Game of Thrones? The answer to that is that I am most definitely a nobody and will remain one until the day I die…but…I do spend my time and make my living as an acting coach scouring scripts in a desperate search for drama. I read a ton of scripts and I work with lots of actors trying to dredge up the worthwhile drama in them. My alternative take on the Game of Thrones finale is an exercise based entirely on storytelling where drama takes precedence. Maybe my ending makes no sense in terms of the books (which I have not read), or the budget (which I am not paying for), or the fan base (of which I am not a member)….but it does make dramatic sense…and for me that is all that matters.

So…here it is…my broad brush ending to Game of Thrones.

ALTERNATE ENDING

Main Themes: Duty and Honor

The sacking of King’s Landing should’ve been the first big battle of the last season….with the Battle of King’s Landing and the Battle of Winterfell exchanging places in the story order. In a six episode season (which should’ve been 12 episodes) the Battle of King’s Landing should happen in episode three at the latest, two if possible, and the Battle of Winterfell against the Night King should have happened in the penultimate episode (#5). In a 12 episode final season, which i would prefer, I would have the Battle of King’s Landing at Episode 8 and the Battle of Winterfell at episode 11.

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The Battle/sacking of King’s Landing would play out the same way in my version as the show’s actual version, with Dany going all Dresden/Hiroshima on the general population. My one tweak would be that Cersei and Jaime die in each others arms but by dragon fire when Dany sees them trying to escape the Red Keep. Dany and Cersei would look into each others eyes and then Jaime and Cersei would have their conversations “this is all that matters”, and then Dany would torch them. This sequence gives Dany agency in Cersei’s death and also makes Cersei’s death a punishment for all of her evil.

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The burning of King’s Landing sets Dany up as a morally questionable character due to her torching of innocents. It also means that every character becomes morally compromised by the atrocity because they still need Dany on their side in the fight against the Night King. The Night King is the greatest existential threat to all of mankind, and so it means that everyone…even the mad Queen who kills innocent people, must be kept on board. Every character, from Jon to Tyrion to Arya to Sansa and on and on must bend the knee to one evil, Dany, in order to defeat another greater evil, the Night King.

The Battle of Winterfell then proceeds after the armies march north to Winterfell to meet the Army of the Dead. On this march there are lots of conversations about Dany and what are we going to do? She is mad? etc., etc.

The Battle of Winterfell is shot more clearly and with more coherence and clarity in my version. While I didn’t really dig Arya killing the Night King or the way she did it in the original…I will acquiesce and keep that sequence the same. But in my Battle of Winterfell many more characters are lost. Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm as well as the ones killed in the original all die.

After the end of the Battle of Winterfell and the Night King’s death, Dany embraces an exhausted Jon and they weep and cheer their victory together. Dany then tells Jon that since the threat of the Night King is over, “their child can be born into a world of peace.” Uh-oh…Dany is pregnant…and Jon is the father…the stakes just got even higher in Westeros.

In my alternative finale…Jon is, as always, ready to serve his queen…but Tyrion, Sansa, and Arya all implore him that something must be done about the Mad Queen who is talking and acting like a tyrant.

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Jon then has a similar conversation with Dany that he had in the actual finale, and they go back and forth about what is good and right…and Dany asks Jon to join her in making this new world. Jon kills her. Dany being pregnant with Jon’s child as well as being his Queen and love…makes the stakes much higher, the gravity of his decisions much heavier and much more fraught than in the original finale. By killing Dany, Jon is actually sacrificing not just his love and self-conceived notion of his honor and belief system…but his lineage, his child, his everything that he yearned for throughout the story. Jon commits this heinous (in his eyes) act because it is the “right” thing to do for the people, the kingdom and the Starks…and these added narrative obstacles make the weight of that decision much much greater than was in the original finale.

The Lords of the Seven kingdoms then declare Jon, who is the rightful heir, to be king of Westeros. Jon declines and instead exiles himself to the North, to wander among the Wildlings far north of the wall…and to never marry or have children or take lands. His punishment is self-imposed….this gives Jon agency and makes his exile a heroic act and thus he begins his arc of redemption. Jon starts as a bastard longing for acceptance and he ends as a self-imposed exile…forgoing all he yearns for in order to do the right thing.

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The council, after much debate and hemming and hawing, all, out of various Machiavellian maneuvers…choose Gendry Baratheon to be king. Gendry is chosen by some because they think he is an peasant who can be easily manipulated to thwart Stark power. But those anti-Stark machination are upended when Arya Stark, who has discovered she is pregnant with Gendry’s baby and thus cannot explore what lies in the West, accepts Gendry’s proposal. Arya thus becomes the Queen of Westeros, and due to Gendry’s rather uneducated background, Arya is now the real ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and eventual mother to a King as well.

Arya marrying Gendry and becoming Queen of Westeros fulfills her character’s arc too as she has thrown off the childish urges for adventure and revenge and instead grows up to accept “DUTY” above all else. Just as her mother and father before her sacrificed for her, Arya now sacrifices her dream of personal freedom for her child and for her family and kingdom. Arya starts as a tomboy repulsed by the trappings of power…and ends as a Queen, ruling over the Seven Kingdoms.

Sansa, assuming she is backed by her sister, then declares that the North will not kneel…and must be independent. Other kingdoms tart contemplating the same thing. Gendry and Arya, with an assist from Bran, decide that in order to quell the “independence” talk, Sansa must consummate her marriage to Tyrion and bear an heir if the North is to be granted autonomy. Both Sansa and Tyrion are horrified and vehemently against the idea.

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This is the highest of drama considering Sansa’s history and also considering that it is her sister and brother who are asking this of her. After much hemming and hawing…Sansa does what both Jon and Arya do…she chooses duty…and she accepts her fate and the conditions under which she will become Queen of the North. Sansa chooses to put duty to her people and family above all else and agrees to the pairing. (A shot, through a doorway - like the iconic ending of Godfather I with Michael in a room and Kay watching through a door- of Sansa standing in a bedroom alone. Tyrion enters, they exchange a glance, he kisses her hand, then Sansa walks over and slowly closes the door on the camera, implying they are about to have sex, would be terrific.)

In order to soften the blow upon Sansa…Tyrion is named the Hand and will live in Kings Landing after Sansa is impregnated, leaving Sansa to rule the North on her own. Arya tells Tyrion that she will watch him with a keen eye and have his head if he so much as thinks of betraying her or Gendry. Tyrion looks over and sees Bran, who nods. Tyrion understands that Bran knows everything and that he must be unquestionably loyal to Arya and Gendry.

Bran is now the Three Eyed Raven…and serves as a sort Grand Maester who is part historian, part prophet, part wizard. Bran works closely with Samwell and they become the keepers of history and knowledge. Bran also searches far and wide with his powers to find Drogon and maybe even bring him under the Stark wing with his warging powers.

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The show could end with the same Stark montage as the original finale…except this time with Arya sitting on her throne next to Gendry…ruling the kingdom through her husband, with Sansa sitting alone on her throne in Winterfell with her hand on her belly contemplating her soon to be born child, and with Jon riding alone in the cold and snow of the North, feeling the bitter wind of his exile.

So…that is what I think should’ve happened. If the show had gone one more full season they may have been able to pull it off…but alas…we will never know. I guess I better get started writing my fantasy novel masterpiece because that is the only way these ideas will see the light. And thus concludes my speculative Game of Thrones pseudo-fan fiction!

©2019