Movie theaters have been among the most dearly missed businesses forced to close by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, UC Berkeley students have found a clever open air venue to catch a movie with friends. But for those who’ve made a weekly habit of attending the Friday night screenings at People’s Park, there’s more to their decision than simply scratching the old pre-quarantine cinema itch.
The screenings are part of an ongoing series of student-organized movie nights in protest of UC Berkeley’s plans to build a new student housing complex on the park. Each film is chosen by the long-term houseless residents of the park and is preceded by a community open forum and an open cookout in benefit of the residents.
“Just coming out and having a good time at the park is actually a really important part of our movement,” said June Nelson, a recent UC system graduate and organizer for the event. “It helps build a lot of support and solidarity in the community.”
Though the screenings have varied in genre and tone — the first night featured “Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope” — the people of the park chose to watch the 2019 Sundance Film Festival hit, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” on March 12 for its relevant themes. But the night had an additional surprise in store, with director Joe Talbot making a spontaneous Zoom appearance.
“When we made this movie, this is the exact kind of place that we envisioned it being watched,” Talbot said, reflecting on the history of People’s Park as a center for community and activism. “Especially now when we’re just so unfortunately disconnected from each other, it means a lot to me.”
The semi-autobiographical drama stars and was co-written by Jimmie Fails as a Black San Francisco local whose life is turned around upon learning his Victorian childhood home was allegedly built by his grandfather in the 1940s. When the home’s current upper class tenant moves out, Jimmie becomes dead set on restoring the house and reclaiming it from its neglectful realtors.
“Jimmie and I grew up together in San Francisco,” Talbot said of the process of writing and producing the film — which would end up being a five year project. “Jimmie always said that when we started out, he didn’t think anyone would care. We did a concept trailer to sort of raise awareness about the film … and within days, people started reaching out to us and saying they wanted to help us make this movie.”
Equal parts students, community members and unhoused long-term residents of the park, many in the audience were intimately familiar with the film’s political themes. “I think we lose everything (to gentrification). I think it’s threatening to destroy all that is good and unique to the Bay Area,” Talbot said to much applause. “I’m preaching to the choir in saying this, and I know you all know this intimately well … but it’s pushed out some of the very best people I know.”
Throughout the event, Talbot expressed immense respect for the unhoused members of the audience — and it was clear the feeling was mutual. One moment among many came when Talbot recognized an unhoused park resident who had assisted with the production of the film’s initial concept trailer. The two exchanged warm words of appreciation as if they were long-separated friends.
“Joe totally recognized the person even without seeing their face,” Nelson reported. “I remember commenting after how small of a world it is in the Bay Area. The people who care about these things are all working together, even if we have different backgrounds and come from different places.”
Talbot ended the night expressing support for recent student demonstrations at People’s Park. “Gentrifiers who are looking to rationalize their destruction have been using the same tired arguments for generations,” he explained. “They paint themselves as saviors who will restore order and civility to that area … My experience in San Francisco is, whenever I hear developers say that, you look at the receipts and they don’t do that.”
“To know that this movie can hopefully connect to some of what you’re experiencing and just be something that you enjoy watching together in the Park,” he continued, “it makes me proud to be in the Bay.”