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Life Through the Lens: From where does your identity come?

“People aren’t one thing.”

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Ownership is huge. At certain times in my life, ownership WAS everything. Heck, I believe that ownership defined me in those times. What I possessed, what I had, what I bought – I WAS what I owned.

I can still feel the leather and mesh of my first real investment: Nike Air Diamond Fury ’96s. These sneakers, worn by MLB phenom Ken Griffey Jr., were the pinnacle of my desires. I was only 12-years old, but I knew that life without these shoes would be intolerable, unimaginable, and downright insufferable! Whatever it took to get them is what I would do. After shopping my kidneys around (with no real interest, thankfully), I landed on the tried-and-true method of “working your butt off and saving every penny.” The design was breathtaking, the comfort was transformational, the boost was indescribable…it defined me. I WAS my shoes…until they wore out.

I can still feel the smooth and effortless wheel of my favorite Christmas gift ever: a 2005 fifth-generation iPod. It was the first to be offered in black, the first to include video, and my mom sprung to have it engraved for me! I was in heaven (literally for a solid 2 minutes because my heart stopped beating, my soul escaped to Bliss, but was quickly resuscitated under the Christmas tree). Until this point in my life, I had been toting around a case of 400 CDs. Although it was great for my triceps, man was not made to call a case of 400 CDs “portable,” but I was stubborn enough to do just that: wherever I went, my CDs gladly tagged along. This gift from my mother revolutionized my life. It defined me for so long. I WAS my iPod…until it wore out.

I can still feel the cold keys in my hand as our paperwork was signed, our deal was made official, and my debt was now on a first-name-basis with Neil Armstrong…because it was astronomical: my first (and only) home-purchase. The decision was titanic, but the implications maybe larger…to own my own. To fill my own. To paint my own. No longer would I rely on someone to cover my head — those dilapidated shingles were mine. That stained carpet was mine. I would say those woods were mine, but Pocahontas said you can’t own trees. Either way, my feet, for the first time, trod on my property. What a feeling! I WAS my house…until it began to wear out.

Being what you own is all well-and-good…until it isn’t. Putting your identity into “something” will eventually leave you empty. As my experience has taught, you cannot be all one thing…because things break, things deteriorate, things are lost. Be about more.

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“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” begins with scattered context: nameless characters, formless dialogue, and a house. Granted – the house is beautiful…but so what? Lots of houses are beautiful. It becomes apparent, though, that this house is much more than just a house. This house is an identity.

Jimmie Fails (played by himself) used to live in this house. Although his family lost the house long ago because of his father’s errant ways, Jimmie has never truly left. Jimmie holds so tight because his grandfather built this house with his own two hands…how could he let that go? It is his birthright. It is rightfully his…even if it is owned and occupied by someone else.

Jimmie’s love for this house extends beyond just admiration; he regularly shows up to the premises and performs maintenance and upkeep. Much to the confusion of the current owners, Jimmie cares for the house regardless of its present proprietorship. Love is much deeper than that. True ownership is deeper than mere possession.

Jimmie is frequently accompanied at the house by his best friend Monty (Jonathan Majors). True, Monty never lived here…but his tangible love for his friend leads him to desire what Jimmie desires. Not only do they share this “dream,” but they also share a tiny bedroom at Monty’s grandfather’s house. Temporary discomfort is nothing when stacked against this lasting promise of homecoming. Jimmie will never stop until this realty becomes reality.

When the house is finally put for sale, and four million dollars the asking price, what lengths will Jimmie go to call this his own? His identity is wrapped into this package…how can you put a price tag on that?

Within the first few minutes of the film, you will fall into a trance. Unlike a dentist-induced trance, this will not leave you numb and begging for “your mommy.” Instead, this movie will leave you feeling and lost in the fantasy. It is expertly crafted, uniquely told, and constantly-mesmerizing.

One standout is the direction of Joe Talbot. It becomes very obvious to the viewer that we are walking HIS streets. Talbot brings beautiful life to this distinct yet disconnected city. Talbot’s vision takes center stage in this modern day-fable.

Another standout is actor/writer Jimmie Fails. This story comes from his life, and his performance shows the depth and connection that provides. He doesn’t appear to be acting as much as living. His joy and his sorrow quickly become yours…and you are happy to share!

Rob Morgan as James Sr. is wonderful — Danny Glover as Grandpa Allen is heart-felt — my favorite performance, though, may go to Jonathan Majors as Monty. His quirks could easily make this character “silly” or “false,” but, instead, he is immensely true and endearing. Majors’s portrayal is eye-opening, side-splitting, and gut-wrenching. The pair of Fails and Majors is epic, as well; their friendship seems nothing short of authentic and effortless.

In this age of representation and exploitation, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is an accessible portrait of a black-man and his struggles/successes. His quest for validation, for connection, for ownership, for legacy, for lineage…it is a story that transcends and transports. For anyone yearning to know what life is like for someone different than themselves, here is an opportunity to see one clearly.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is available on iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.

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REPORT CARD: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Grade: A+

Comment: A near-perfect parable

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