The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Fresh-voiced debut dramedy places setting above all
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover
In their surprisingly assured debut feature, writer-director Joe Talbot and lead actor Jimmie Fails (who also provided the story) have crafted a wistful and engaging love/hate letter to a very specific place: their hometown of San Francisco.
In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Fails stars as a late-twentysomething Bay Area skateboarder named “Jimmie Fails.” (The film is at least partially based on his own family mythology, and his perfectly metaphorical name is put to good use.) Jimmie is living out in far South San Francisco (the industrial area of Bayview-Hunters Point), crashing with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors). Every day Jimmie buses back into San Francisco proper to visit the glorious Queen Anne-style rowhouse he grew up in. Jimmie’s estranged father lost the house back in the ’90s due to a growing drug habit and a number of failed business ventures. It’s now owned by a couple of Caucasian Baby Boomers. But Jimmie is so obsessed with the house that he sneaks back there when the owners are off at work and serves as an unwelcome handyman. He paints the trim, rakes the garden and generally “corrects” all the upgrades that have been instituted in the last decade or so. The new owners don’t much appreciate Jimmie’s loving fixes to their home and try their best to get rid of him.
But Mont (an aspiring artist and playwright who’s always writing down conversations and sketching faces) knows there’s no deterring Jimmie when it comes to that house. Jimmie’s great grandfather built it by hand during World War II. Now, of course, its been gentrified out of his humble reach. Today, it’s worth millions—a price the couchsurfing Jimmie could never hope to scrape together.
When the newest owners are forced to move out of the house thanks to a contested family will, however, Jimmie comes up with a mad plan: He and Mont will simply break the locks and move in. They’ll take it over as squatters, despite the fact they have no actual claim on the home.
On its surface, of course, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about the rapid gentrification of our urban environments and the displacement of traditional ethnic populations by increasingly upscale white occupiers. But The Last Black Man in San Francisco probes a little deeper. Jimmie’s great grandfather only moved into the neighborhood because the previous tenants were all Asian—and were carted off to internment camps during World War II. Jimmie’s family didn’t create this neighborhood—they were just the last group of gentrifiers. Who, you may be forced to wonder, really “owns” a neighborhood?
The film also spends a good amount of time exploring the idea of racial and personal identity. Though Jimmie is black, he rides a skateboard and wears lumberjack shirts, insulating himself from the tracksuit-wearing hip-hop addicts of his inner city neighborhood. His pal Mont, meanwhile, is a sensitive theater lover (and quite possibly gay). He’s invested far too much time and attention on his selfless dedication to Jimmie’s Quixotic quest, rather than his own artistic growth. In the end Jimmie has tied up far too much of his self-worth in an edifice of wood and plaster and the stories his family told about it. Without it, he thinks that he’s nothing. And that’s a path that’s bound to end in tragedy.
Every day Jimmie and Mont pass a chorus of gangsters hanging out on the street corner near their house. The tattooed, rap-spouting, dope-smoking group gives Jimmie and Mont ceaseless crap for being “weirdoes.” Yet Jimmie grew up with most of these guys and was friends with them before they became such hardened characters. And as much as he’s scared of them, Mont is secretly envious of the guys. He wishes he could have their street smart confidence and tough cameraderie. Jimmie and Mont certainly don’t fit in with the trendy wine bars of upscale San Francisco. But they also don’t jibe with the inner city black crowd in Bayview. They are an island unto themselves.
There are moments when the filmmakers evoke the exasperated sense of humor (not to mention the film school savvy) of Spike Lee. But Lee, ever the cynic, could never conjure up this film’s soaring sense of hope. As Jimmie and Mont glide through the canyons of San Francisco sharing a skateboard, there’s a glorious feeling of freedom at work (goosed in no small part by Emile Mosseri’s glorious score). There are also off-kilter hints of Boots Riley’s beautifully baffling urban fantasy Sorry to Bother You. This film’s stilted dialogue and deliberately offbeat pacing border on the abstract. But unlike Riley’s increasingly surreal debut, The Last Black Man remains rooted in everyday reality. (Even the film’s opening shot, juxtaposing a smiling little girl in a pink dress and an ominous man in a white hazmat suit, is factually based. The Hunters Point Shipyard was home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and is now a Superfund site.)
By the time the film hits its “play within a play” denouement, it’s gotten a little wrapped up in itself. The screenplay goes on longer than it probably should. At 121 minutes, the storytelling is noticeably languid, stripping urgency from the engaging story. The writers are trying too hard to write themselves out of the film’s various storylines. This is a simple story, really, and shouldn’t require quite so much effort to wrap itself up. But that’s about the only weak link in a film filled with wondrous direction, sympathetic acting and a beautifully metaphorical story.
As you can probably surmise, The Last Black Man is deeply steeped in a love for and an understanding of San Francisco. Viewers hear the strains of Jefferson Airplane on the soundtrack. Characters watch Rudolph Maté’s San Francisco-set film noir D.O.A. And is that a glimpse of Emperor Norton we spy in the background? Toward the end our man Jimmie overhears a couple of snotty white newcomers complaining about San Francisco’s stress, expense, crime rate, etc. “But do you love it?” he asks them—a question for which they can only summon a stammering response. “You’re not allowed to hate a city if you don’t love it,” he concludes. It’s not the newcomers or the gentrifiers or the nouveau riche or “the white man” that this film has a problem with. It’s the lack of understanding—of history, of what came before, of the people who made this particular place what it is today. There are plenty of criticisms that can (and are) levied against the City by the Bay in this fresh-voiced debut effort. But they come from a place of love. And that’s a sentiment that applies to just about anyone’s hometown: You can’t hate it if you don’t love it.