The Quietness of Gentrification in ‘Blindspotting’ and ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’
There was a study made by the Center for Community Innovation at UC Berkeley around 2015, entitled ‘Case studies on Gentrification and Displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area’. Within the 161-page document the CCI details many key elements on Gentrification and how it’s affecting the Bay Area. The very first “Key Theme” they presented in the introduction was Gentrification is a process, not an endpoint. They stated that “Gentrification is not an on-off switch” and it is in fact “a multi-stage process that may not be easily captured or discerned.”
Gentrification does not simply happen overnight. Displacing the lower class to make way for “nicer streets” isn’t something that can happen in such a short time – true gentrification is quiet, if it was too loud everyone would notice. Think about how much your own neighborhood has changed over time – did it happen within a 24-hour span? Odds are it didn’t, it took years of preparation and in the blink of an eye, you finally notice just how much has changed.
We native Bay Areans have a genetic chip on our shoulders in regards to our home. We constantly make it a trait of the personality to remind people where we grew up, and for good reason. There was a culture in the Bay that people often imitated, but never replicated. Lately though, our home has quietly and subtly shifted. It feels like our Bay Area has been tarnished by tech millennials and Caucasian hipsters.
In the span of two years, a duo of movies were released that tried to spread the word of gentrification in the Bay: Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting (2018) and Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019). While both have many different themes layered into their narratives, it’s the central theme of gentrification that is the backbone of both stories, similar to how the Bay gentrification has slowly infested our collective narratives.
Collin and Miles in Blindspotting, as well as Jimmie Fails IV in Last Black Man are metaphors for gentrification and how the other characters help reinforce this idea. Collin, played by Clipping member and Hamilton alum Daveed Diggs, and Jimmie Fails (playing a fictionalised version of himself) both represent the change that the Bay Area is going through. They both struggle with trying to be the Old Bay we all grew up with which is multifaceted and diverse: A Bay Area making its own way and doing its inhabitants’ own rules. Their character arcs represent the changes that happen when you let outsiders try to dictate your surroundings.
For Collin, it happens when he beats the living shit out of the representative embodiment of gentrification, an out of town drunk white hipster who was acting disrespectful. After this incident Collin is sent to jail for a year, with his controlling girlfriend Val continuously makes snide remarks about how he needs to change. From his hair “it’s my identity, bruh” to his lifestyle “you know, drinking green juice doesn’t mean you’ve changed.” For Val, all she sees when looking at Miles is the fight against the Hipster, all she sees is the old Bay Area struggling against change. She can’t help but keep on reminding him to get rid of his best friend Miles, played by Rafael Casal, who is representative of the Old Bay Area. He’s thuggish, off-putting, and always has a chip on his shoulder. But he is also loyal and compassionate, especially to his friends and family. Val remarks “[Miles] is gonna get you killed”, while Miles often declares that she’s “a disloyal bitch.” Collin is the Bay Area fighting to be who they are and who they are forcing themselves to be due to change. The old versus the new.
Just across the Bay in the heart of San Francisco, Jimmie is skateboarding across town on his way to the lush Victorian home he grew up in. Much like Games of Thrones’ Jon Snow, Jimmie is at war to get his “ancestral” home back. Jimmie’s grandfather built the property in the 1940s, becoming known as “The First Black Man in San Francisco.” But due to an increase in rent prices, the family was evicted, and thus started a lifelong campaign to get back his home.
During the opening montage of the film, we see Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) skateboarding their way through downtown SF. At first, we see the paralleled changes of the city: the homeless lining the streets as the white techies look at the two strangely. But it’s near the end of the montage that struck me – we see cutting images of the house and Jimmie himself. Sweat with residue on the white planks, the windows match interlaced with Jimmie’s eyes, the drapes blowing like Jimmie’s shirt. It’s here that we realize Jimmie is the house. He is fighting to not only preserve his home but to preserve himself, battling to keep himself intact while a city he once knew and loved is seemingly slowly turning its back on him.
So, once the house becomes vacant while in escrow, Jimmie attempts to pretend to fit into this new Bay Area. He squats at his old home, filling it with the old furniture his Aunt took from the house to try to make it feel like what he once knew in service to his memories. He talks to his new neighbors, fabricating a recent move to the neighborhood. He is embellishing his past in order to fit into the new New Bay Area but nothing seems to work. The realtor throws his furniture on the street, the bank won’t give him a loan to buy the house back: the city is moving on without him.
The worst part of it all is the fact that his origin story is false: his grandfather never even built his birthright. It was a meticulous lie constructed to make him feel better about his true lineage: that he was poor, his father was a crack dealer, and his estranged mother a dope fiend. They never owned the house, they rented it. Jimmie knew this all along but convinced himself of this false narrative so much so that he actually believed it. He thought himself Bay Area royalty, but it was a detailed lie that he molded his identity from. The representative of the Old Bay is now imagining himself as his own worst enemy, a gentrifier. Someone taking refuge in a Bay Area home that never belonged to him. So, he does the one thing we all might be destined to do: he leaves the Bay, rowing away on a small two-man boat out into the Pacific Ocean to an unknown destination (presumably to his death).
Gentrification isn’t the sole identity of these films, just as it isn’t the sole identity of the Bay. We’re multifaceted. But as of late it seems to be the only narrative that matters – the only narrative that is being told. Maybe this resonates to such a degree because it’s happening everywhere in the United States. We have to “fight for our land and fight for our homes” in order to “change how they see us.” Maybe it doesn’t matter, and our homes will never be the same. Maybe our homes are just a place and our homes will forever be in us. Whatever the case will be, we have to be loud. Because the changes come quickly and quietly.