‘Lady Bird’, ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’, and the Distorted Memory of Growing Up

A24: it’s the indie darling production/distribution company we love to hate, and love to buy overpriced dog key chains from even more. A24 has successfully branded itself as a powerhouse for unnerving horror, and funnily enough, heartwarming dramedy. The space its films have created for themselves has landed them a place in every Letterboxd ‘films of the decade’ list. Two of those, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Lady Bird, have particularly piqued my interest across my multiple viewings because of how they seem to represent two sides of the same coin; becoming yourself in the California air, and how that usually involves lying to ourselves about the truth of our pasts. 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Lady Bird have garnered a die-hard fan base and critical acclaim because of their authenticity and universality, though neither are intended to be a tell-all of the writer/directors’ lives. Joe Talbot, director and co-writer of The Last Black Man in San Francisco made it clear during the film’s press run that this isn’t necessarily his story, though he spent his whole life running around the Bay Area with his creative partner and best friend. Always confident to describe the film as being “loosely-based” off actor and co-writer Jimmie Fails’ upbringing, the film moves as a love letter of sorts, a story adorned with the pain and hope for a city that only those who have lived it could tell.

Jimmie (played by real-life Jimmie Fails) exists with the same chip on his shoulder. His every day is plagued by what used to be, and how he can bring those good memories to fruition once again. He isn’t the most trustworthy of protagonists, and though he isn’t always telling the truth, he is very genuinely living in the world he has constructed for himself that provides him the comfort he’s never felt, and the claim to a life many black American families never have. 

Academy Award nominee Greta Gerwig’s now-teen-classic, Lady Bird, treads the same waters. Christine (Saoirse Ronan) can’t imagine a future where’s she’s stuck in her hometown of Sacramento. She finds it boring, a place where ambitious and artistic people like herself are trapped and forced to live out their days wistfully dreaming of the East Coast. A film where love is attention, and vice versa, we come to understand the world through her eyes. It’s an endeavour that can never be truly objective, and is often different from what we see.

When we remember the past, it’s always better than how we lived it. Jimmie grew up in a constantly changing and unstable environment, splitting his childhood across multiple homes that never technically belonged to him. He clung to the notion of ownership, and found a way to create it for himself. Christine, in the midst of a tryst with then-white boy obsession Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), hears him tell her he’s a virgin. We do too… or is that just what she wanted him to say?

The two films are on a constant mission to test our protagonists’ truthfulness as well as the world around them, an experiment that comes out inconclusive: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” Undeniably cheesy, but impossible to ignore. We are constantly imagining our worlds as something they weren’t, and to me, it’s somehow the most genuine thing we do. 

The creative process of Lady Bird matches the distorted nature of memory in nearly the same way. DP Sam Levy worked with Greta Gerwig in order to create something that felt photographic, equally as nostalgic as Christine is living it. This gave the film the visual freedom to move with more imagination and selective detail, “….it was this aesthetic of memory that we’d been talking about…,” he says in a Collider interview about the film. 

The camera work in The Last Black Man in San Francisco subconsciously does the same blurring of truth and imagination. Obscenely long zooms into the home of Jimmie’s father James Sr. (Rob Morgan) and a 140ft dolly shot in which a little girl examines a man in a hazmat suit, ground us in the slightly off-kilter reality in which Mont and Jimmie reside. 

However, it’s important to note the racial perspective on these films. Lady Bird ended up a staple piece in the unspoken A24 Hall-of-Fame, while the studio caught heat for neglecting to publicise Last Black Man in San Francisco and other black-led films slated for release. My fascination with this particular distinction doesn’t end there. Christine moves throughout Lady Bird not knowing her life was something worth loving. She never looked at the winding roads outside her window until it turned to the bustle of the never-asleep New York. She was always given the room to forget what was hers. Jimmie is the polar opposite, only forgetting what was real in favour of pretending it was his. He spent the majority of The Last Black Man in San Francisco chasing the best times of his life. When his family was together, when he lived with his father, when the beautiful large and mostly-wooden post-World War II home was his. 

Without trying, Greta Gerwig and Joe Talbot were able to create something wholly truthful, while being entirely based around both lies and memory. The films craft not only a reality within themselves, but tell a difficult truth of the polarity of growing up as a white girl from Sacramento and a black kid from San Francisco, along with the great equaliser that is nostalgia. There’s nothing we can do to escape the lies we tell ourselves to get through every day of the present, we are only left with the ability to hope that the seconds we’re living now will be something as beautiful and full as we’ll try to remember it. 

 

by Yashia Burrell

Yashia Burrell is a 21 year old film student from Virginia. She spends most of her time making films and listening to Phoebe Bridgers. She’s obsessed with Ari Aster and all things surreal, or related to Call Me By Your Name. You can follow her Instagram at @yashiaburrell and twitter @ylburrell.

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