Has social distancing in the wake of the Rona already got you going stir crazy? Well, now would be a good time to sit back and Netflix/iTunes/Amazon and chill your way through the collective quarantine we are officially under.
What better time to catch up on some film gems that may have passed you by while they were in a theater near you?
Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area at large are well known as a heart of cultural and artistic excellence and influence. As such, inevitably artists who call Oakland, San Francisco and the Bay Area home are wont to give tribute to the place that shaped their soul, their artistry and their world view. Film lovers are the lucky beneficiaries of that trend. Over the last decade in particular we have seen some groundbreaking and award winning feature films come out of The Bay that have caught the attention of the world.
Here are just a few of my faves of the bunch.
- Fruitvale Station
The story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, Octavia Spencer
Why I Love It:
For those of us who are from Oakland and lived through this tragedy, it can be a hard watch as it picks at wounds and sensitivities that have yet to heal. Still, it is an important and necessary story that gives insight into what happened on that fateful night of the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer.
This incident touched off riots, protests and profound conversation the world over about racism and police violence and brutality towards the Black and Brown communities at large. In a culture that can be quick to demonize murder victims like Oscar Grant and be judgmental and unforgiving of mistakes of a young man’s past, Fruitvale Station humanizes him. It gives us a glimpse into the life of a man who was striving to change for the benefit of his daughter and the woman he loved and the potential that was so tragically snuffed out that fateful morning on a BART platform.
- Sorry To Bother You
In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer
Why I Love It:
Right off the bat I am transported back into time as I relive a childhood memory with the mention of the Rusty Scupper, a popular Oakland restaurant from back in the day. *Let’s pause here for a moment to pour out one for the restaurant homies of years past like the Rusty Skupper, Casa Maria, Spenger’s, Fuddruckers, Skates, Hs Lordships…*
As classified by writer/director Boots Riley (who like me has theatre roots at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theatre), Sorry To Bother You is an, “absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing.” Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius serves as our guide into this fantastical exploration of code-switching, temptation and the soul crushing risks of assimilation in the hopes of receiving the rewards and benefits of a Capitalistic structure. The implied commentary suggests that Cassius must put on the mask of whiteness to achieve success, taking him up the ladder to a status and prestige that ultimately seeks to deplete his very humanity.
This movie is a fun and engaging ride that is sure to get you thinking of the many powerful underlying messages scattered throughout.
- The Last Black Man In San Francisco
Jimmie and his best friend Mont try to reclaim the house built by Jimmie’s grandfather, launching them on a poignant odyssey that connects them to their past, even as it tests their friendship and sense of belonging in the place they call home.
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover, Mike Epps
Why I Love It:
“We built these ships…dredged these canals…in the San Francisco they never knew existed. This is our home.”
Those are the haunting words that are at the crux of the themes explored in The Last Black Man In San Francisco. At its base this is a love story between a man, a house, and a city as told through the lens of the relationship of protagonist Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery. We bear witness to Jimmie trying to lay claim to something he feels ownership of, but that is — due to circumstances beyond his control — slipping through his fingers.
Such is the plight of many Black families in San Francisco through rapidly increasing gentrification. This film gives me a sense of melancholy for times gone by because the house stands as a metaphor for middle class people being pushed out of their beloved city. That leaves many at a crossroads between fighting for what they love or making the heartbreaking decision of releasing their dreams and letting their property go. It’s a very timely tale of what continues to happen in San Francisco, Oakland and many other cities throughout the Bay Area and across the nation. As stated in one of the most stinging lines from the film directed towards a cavalier gentrifier, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco…You don’t get to hate it, unless you love it.”
Collin must make it through his final three days of probation for a chance at a new beginning in his Oakland, California, neighborhood. His bond with his volatile best friend soon gets tested when Collin sees a police officer shoot a suspect in the back during a chase through the streets. Things soon come to a head when the buddies attend a party at the upscale home of a young and wealthy tech entrepreneur.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Wayne Knight
Why I Love It:
This film serves as a love letter to my beloved hometown of Oakland. While it is fun to see some of the iconic sites and symbols of The Town highlighted up on the screen, it is the depth and message of the story that really pulled me in.
This is a deep dive into what happens when we are forced to put a magnifying glass up against our lives and detect some of the blindspots we may have towards the people with whom we travel on our life’s journey. Are they helping or hindering our path? That is the question presented to Collin. How does he reconcile the faults and failings of those who have seemingly had his back (both Miles and Val in their own ways) when doing so may risk his very dignity and freedom? Comedy is used as a device to lighten up some of the gut punches that come from the heavier subject matter, such as the demonization of Black men, White privilege, code-switching, gentrification, police brutality, violence and identity. Sound familiar to the themes in some of the other films on this list?
Although I totally missed it during its theater run, I was lucky to catch a recent fundraiser screening of Blindspotting at The Roxie in San Francisco while I was back home in the Bay Area. Opportunities are probably few and far between now, but if you can, catch this one on the big screen.
- The Harimaya Bridge
After the sudden death of his estranged son in rural Japan, an American man must go there to claim some important family items. While there, he discovers some secrets his son left behind.
Cast: Ben Guillory, Saki Takaoka, Misa Shimizu, Danny Glover, Misono, Honoka, Victor Grant, A’da Alison Woolfolk (Hey, that’s me!), Miho Shiraishi, Akira Hamada, Junkichi Orimoto, Peter Coyote, Hajime Yamazaki, Toshiyuki Kitami, Yukiko Kashiwagi
Why I Love It:
Because…obvs!!! But seriously, even if I wasn’t in this movie and my brother, Aaron Woolfolk, didn’t write, direct and produce it, I would still LOVE this film.
Shot in the tradition and style of Japanese filmmaking, The Harimaya Bridge follows Daniel Holder as he must face the demons that have left him blinded by hate in order to open his heart to the love that could save him.
Shot in Kochi, Japan for six weeks and San Francisco for two weeks, it is a beautiful story with gorgeous cinematography and world class art that boasts a cast of top tier A-List Japanese acting and music talent. The music score is phenomenal and still gives me chills! The film opened nationwide in Japan and Korea in 2009 with a limited US run in 2010. The character of Mickey is featured as the central character in the short films “Eki” (The Station) and “Kuroi Hitsuji” (Black Sheep). Aaron won the “Best First Time Feature Director” award at the 2010 Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival for The Harimaya Bridge.
Although my brother and I were born and raised in Oakland, our family also has deep roots in San Francisco. Many of the sites and locations in the film were shot in places that give honor to that legacy as it documents a special part of our history for posterity.
You may have observed that Danny Glover appears in three of the five above named films. That is a testament to the fact that in spite of — maybe because of — his status as an icon and legend in the acting field he is an ardent supporter of young artists and of his hometown (San Francisco) Bay Area roots. Having filmed with him in a foreign country, I have personally witnessed the reach and effect of his star power. (Some of the stories I could tell of that amazing and unique experience!) To have someone like Danny reaching back and giving a hand up and legitimacy to those following in his path is just one of the reasons Bay Area artists continue to shine and thrive.
So, grab your popcorn and/or other quarantine snacks (if you haven’t already depleted most of them as I have) and take in some of these movie treasures. You can maybe then identify some of the reasons why you, too, should Hella love Oakland, San Francisco and the Bay Area!