On a grimy Muni bus, two obvious transplants complain about San Francisco.
“This city blows,” one of the women huffs out. “Big time.”
“I mean, whatever, I’m not above living in a former crack house, you know?”
“Dude, I’ve been saying for months, let’s just move to East L.A. This city’s dead.”
A second later, a young Black man clad in red flannel and a beanie interrupts them, telling them, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco … You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” They haven’t earned the right to hate this place — they just got here, he explains, summing up the message at the center of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” This Muni dweller is Jimmie Fails, a local in a bustling and indifferent San Francisco that is quickly slipping from his grasp.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” centers on Fails’s desperate efforts to hold on to the Victorian house his grandfather built in the heart of the city, and to find belonging in a community that is rapidly changing in the face of an unclear future.
The film is Joe Talbot’s directorial debut, for which he picked up the Best Director prize at Sundance 2019. It is a thoughtful, tender glimpse into gentrification, the affordable housing crisis and toxic masculinity. Whether you are from the city like myself, or have experienced the effects of these issues in your own hometown, this film is universal in its meditations on the human desire for belonging and what defines a home.
As a child, Jimmie lived in the house with his father, who inherited it from his own father, who supposedly built the house with his own two hands. After his father lost their home, it stood abandoned until a couple moved into it. Although he has not lived in the house for years, Jimmie, often with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) at his side, trespasses on the property to make repairs and help with its upkeep. Even after the older couple living there mocks his devotion and throws them off the property, Jimmie refuses to let go of the house. However, when a family dispute forces the couple to vacate the house, he enlists Mont to reclaim his old home, refilling it with his own furniture and memories.
The film is semi-autobiographical, loosely inspired by Fails’ own life and his friendship with Talbot, the film’s director. Both are lifelong San Franciscans, and clearly care about the story they’re telling, imbuing their characters with their own lived experiences, with their love, frustration and resentment of the city. The realism of this film is palpable. The two main actors were virtually unknown faces at the time of its release, allowing the audience to truly envision them as their characters.
Although “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is, in essence, a love story between a man and a house, the relationship between Jimmie and Mont is indelible to the film. The two are inseparable, their brotherly friendship loving and gentle. It’s not typical in film to see men cry so openly in front of each other, and yet these two do so without shame. Their touching brotherhood works with Emile Mosseri’s poetic, heart-aching score and Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography to create an atmosphere that is warm and welcoming, like an old classic.
While it’s obvious that Fails’ real life story is special and worth telling, Talbot’s inclination toward sparse, sleek storytelling inhibits the film’s ability to tell that story in full depth. Jimmie or Mont will often hint at some idea to the viewer, giving them a vague glimpse into their perspectives or relationship. However, the film’s overly minimalist script will cut them off. This film lets us learn little about the characters beyond what is essential to moving the plot forward. Its long lapses of silence — which are stylistically moving, yet lack the dynamic quality of dialogue — cause it to drag.
The film tends to hide behind its ethereal cinematography and dreamy score, shying away from exposing the rough, gritty edges of its subject. In doing so, it engages quite passively with how Jimmie’s Blackness shapes his struggles for belonging and for ownership of his family home. I wish that it leaned harder into its depiction of gentrification, and did so on a wider scale (using the side characters, for example) rather than solely through personal storytelling centered around Jimmie and the house.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a love letter to San Francisco, a city “plagued with idealism,” as explained by former mayor Willie Brown in a recent interview with The New York Times. It’s heart-achingly clear that Jimmie is a victim of this same idealism. He has held onto this one hope for so long. Even though deep down he knows that it’s an illusion, that it’s unlikely he will ever be able to reclaim his grandfather’s home, his struggle forces us to ask whether believing in something that isn’t real is better than believing in nothing at all.
Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and is learning (trying) to play the guitar.