By Afra Nariman
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Directed by: Joe Talbot
Stars: Jimmie Fails, Jonathon Majors, Danny Glover
Jimmie and his best friend Mont try to reclaim the house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. Their journey connects them to their past, the history of San Francisco, and tests their friendship, their identity and their sense of belonging in their neighborhood.
Joe Talbot’s feature film debut is powerful, fun, intimate and most of all, it is down to earth. With a commanding soundtrack and a simply personal story, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is told in a dignified, confident tone that pulses energy into the audience. The film immediately feels important. Watching this film is a breath of fresh air. It’s natural, poetic and filled with unbelievably beautiful scenes of the city, highlighted by the transitional scenes that show Jimmie riding in the streets on his skateboard.
The film begins with a lively monologue from a neighborhood preacher who introduces us to the first underlying messages of the story. He speaks to the issues in their neighborhood that have been ignored by the city for generations. City workers dressed in full protective gear are cleaning the streets. He brings attention to the fact that they are wearing protective gear, but that the people who live in the neighborhood are not told to do the same. He goes on to say:
Those plans are not explicitly expressed but it can be inferred that perhaps the city is only now looking to clean the neighborhood because they plan to gentrify it. If they clean it up, the property prices will go up and richer, predominantly white families may slowly move in and take the neighborhood from the black community who has been living there for generations. He leaves us with the message to;
“Fight for your land. Fight for your home.”
As it turns out, those are the words that Jimmie practically lives by and the idea that this story is built upon. Jimmie has grown up admiring, even obsessing over the house that he has always been told his grandfather built back in 1946. He takes pride in the legend that his grandfather was the “first black man in San Francisco” and that he built such a beautiful home. He even drops by the house, even though people live there, to take care of it, paint it, look after the garden, etc. When he learns that the people who live there are moving out due to a legal battle about the estate, Jimmie and Mont decide to move into the empty house. Jimmie even gets some of his grandfather’s old furniture and decor from his Auntie so that he can make the house feel like home.
From this point on, the film progresses with a very calm, simple, but subtly important pace and tone. The film speaks to the housing crisis, gentrification in the city and the love that Jimmie has for his city. Late in the film, Jimmie expresses a deep definition of what it means to love something the way that he truly loves San Francisco, even though he has been let down by the city time and time again. Interrupting a couple of young women on the bus who he overhears talking about how they “hate this city,” Jimmie says:
“You don’t get to hate San Francisco.”
To which one of the women responds;
“Sorry, but I’ll hate what I want.”
Jimmie, in a very significant way, responds again;
Read that again. You may not think twice about it the first time you hear that, but that statement means something. Can you really hate something unless you first love it? Jimmie loves San Francisco with every ounce of his heart and every fiber in his body. But San Francisco has constantly pulled away from him and let him down… but he still loves it. That’s why he can hate it. You can’t feel so strongly about something unless you’ve always felt strongly about it.
The film also focuses on the idea of identity. Following the emotional loss of their neighborhood friend, Kofi, to gun violence; Mont puts on a single person play at the house, where every character who has shown up in the film is in attendance for. Mont begins a monologue that quickly becomes very real. He asks members of the audience to express what Kofi meant to them. The message of Jimmie’s answer is that “People aren’t one thing.” Mont goes on to expand on that idea. He says:
For the entirety of the film, and it’s implied that for his entire life up to that point, Jimmie has identified with the home that he believes his grandfather built and with the city of San Francisco. He continuously expresses that “this house… this is what I do.” He has always identified with the house and found solitude with the fact that this house signifies his place in the city that he loves. When they are being forced out of the house, Jimmie capitalizes on the message of the neighborhood preacher, who opened the film by saying “Fight for your home.” Jimmie says to Mont, “We gotta fight, right?” Later, at the play, Mont is emotionally trying to get through to Jimmie and help him understand that he is more than just the house and the city. The overarching message here is that we are all more than just what we are born into believing. We are more than any one thing. We are not defined by our past, our stories or our limitations. We are more.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the most elusively powerful films of 2019. It doesn’t overtly focus on the political message that provides a meaningful aura around the film; rather it focuses on the deep-rooted and sincere friendship between Jimmie and Mont, and Jimmie’s evolving sense of identity that stems from his near-obsession with a certain house and his love-hate relationship with the city of San Francisco. The film observes the streets of the city, the people in it and teaches us a little about the history of San Francisco. There are multiple instances where you feel the power and meaning behind an otherwise simple and human story. One faint, but profound transitional moment comes when Mont listens to a homeless man singing “If you’re going to San Francisco.” While the song vibrates through our senses, we are refreshingly shown sights from the city and prepared for the film’s vibrant ending.
The film stresses the importance of friendship, community and the overall vitality of togetherness. It balances a dignified tone and a down-to-earth execution of a very real story that is heartfelt, purposeful and relevant. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is entertaining and enjoyable to watch, but it will also leave you with much to think about and stay with you long after you’ve finished watching.