“You’re not allowed to hate a city you don’t love“, says Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, playing himself in a story he inspired) to a pair of complaining white women (one of whom is Thora Birch) towards the end of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The ladies kind of scoff at his statement but Jimmie knows of what he speaks. San Francisco is a place that has seen more ethnic upheaval than most. The populous Japanese were once forcibly removed and sent to internment camps by our government. The African-American population has seen gentrification introduce a more diverse mix of cultures while they are forced to the outskirts.
It’s this latter point that strikes home for Jimmie, a man whose sole purpose is to reclaim the large Victorian home of his childhood. The Wicks neighborhood in which he was raised no longer resembles what he once knew, and an older white couple live in the house now. But Jimmie can’t stay away. He shows up to admire the house and its Witch’s Hat roof, to bask in the complex family memories that reside within. Reclaiming the house is a point of pride. A piece of family history passed down by Jimmie’s father (the always-great Joe Morgan) claims that his grandfather, “the first black man in San Francisco”, built the house after serving in WWII.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an unusual film, melancholic and lyrical in a way that harkens back to 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. While both movies couldn’t be more different they share a similar deep-rooted love of place and a strange offbeat quality that can only come from personal experience. Jimmie is single-minded in his adoration of the house, showing up unprompted and definitely unwanted to paint the trimming and trim the hedges. He lives in a cramped townhome with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors, last seen in Captive State), an unusual cat who works in a fish market during the day but has a poet’s soul. He lives for the drama in the every day routines, finding theater in ordinary conversations where most of us would just hear empty noise. Mont is the unexpected comic relief who oftentimes seems to be existing on some other plane of existence than the rest of us. When Jimmie learns the older couple have had to abandon the house, he and Mont move in and make it their own, soaking up the freedom that comes with it. The question is how long can this fantasy truly last?
Unfolding like a chapter in some unknown writer’s storybook, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is grounded in reality’s hard truths just as much as it embraces the surreal. Fails and co-writer/director Joe Talbot explore race, identity, and family legacy with a soulful touch. Many scenes just follow Jimmie as he skateboards (another piece of his childhood that can’t be let go) through the city, passing music video shoots, party trolleys, and the occasional naked commuter. It’s also where Jimmie, whose family is part of the fabric of San Francisco, can see the place he loves changing right before his eyes. Economic hardship is reflected in shots of smiling children playing feet away from white men in Hazmat suits cleaning up the toxic water they drink and fish from. A bold street preacher rages nearby, warning of the end times not for the world but for the people who helped make San Francisco what it is. They are all being pushed aside and nobody is doing anything to stop it.
The narrative is compelling enough, despite some questionable acting by Fails and a third act that doesn’t trust its audience to figure out the major themes for themselves. But the cinematography and the score are what elevate The Last Black Man in San Francisco into something truly astounding. Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra team up to craft a sympathetic but authentic picture of San Francisco, similar in style to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. Composer Emile Mosseri’s omnipresent score enhances some incredible sequences best left discovered for oneself as there are visual surprises with every new corner Jimmie and Mont pass by.
Filmmakers use movies to profess love for their hometowns all of the time (Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird a recent example) but that love has never been as palpable as in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. No matter how much it’s changed and the people who live there have changed, it’s true there can never be a place like home.