The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Written by Jimmie Falls, Joe Talbot, and Rob Richert
Directed by Joe Talbot
San Francisco has existed since 1846, formerly the Spanish town of Yerba Buena renamed in the wake of the Mexican-American War. The city boomed with the Gold Rush and despite destructive earthquakes hasn’t seemed to stop growing ever since. These days, San Francisco is at the center of the tech boom, neighborhoods gobbled up by startups and associated service industries that cater to these companies. The long-time residents of San Fran, whose family lineages go back to the first boom of the Gold Rush and the subsequent migrations, are being pushed to the fringes. The gentrification is even crossing the Bay into Oakland. Like every city center in our nation afflicted by “urban revitalization,” the result is always the local is pushed out for the transplant or the tourist.
Jimmie Fails lives with his friend Montgomery on the edges of the city. He aspires to get back to his family home, built by his grandfather post-WWII, in a neighborhood overtaken by new construction. The old house has remained the same but has been occupied by an older white couple who live there thanks to the wife’s mother. Jimmie regularly takes the bus to fix up the house when the couple goes out, and they are unnerved by his attention and want him to leave the place alone. An opportunity comes when the mother dies, leaving the house up in the air as estate matters are ironed out. The structure is left vacant, so Jimmie and Montgomery move in and make the home their own for as long as it lasts.
This is the feature film debut of Joe Talbot, a Bay Area native who developed this story with his friend Jimmie Fails who plays a version of himself in the picture. The power of Talbot’s visuals floored me for a first-timer; he begins the filming showing a deft hand at weaving images, music, and dialogue together to lay out a thesis statement for the film. We transition from the energy of Jimmie’s neighborhood to the cold, shocked stares of downtown inhabitants, revealing their suspicion. The film also doesn’t hide the decaying nature of San Francisco that the gentrification desires to cover up so severely. There are mentally ill people and homeless wandering the streets with seemingly nothing in place to help them, merely a matter of time before they are steamrolled out to make way for boutique businesses.
There’s a moment on the bus where Jimmie overhears two women, admitted transplants, talking about how much they dislike nearly every aspect of the city. He interrupts to ask them if they love San Francisco, continuing to add that they can’t hate the city unless they love it first. This sentiment transcends this one city and should resonate with anyone who is a long-time urban resident feeling imposed upon and pushed out by what they are told is positive “progress.” We love our city while hating it with a deeply held passion.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a beautiful poem of love and hate to a dream about the city that doesn’t ever seem to come true. We learn that Jimmie was put in awful situations by his addict father and kept himself going by focusing on the stories he’d been told about his grandfather’s house. The house comes to represent the one lovely thing, the single element of hope that might lift Jimmie out of what has been his life to date. He spent time in a group home where he was bullied, and Montgomery is his only friend, the two men sharing the same strangeness and outcast nature from the people around them.
Montgomery is an artist, always sketching and working out an idea for a stage play. This play becomes focused on Kofi, one of the men who hang out on the sidewalk by his house. This group of men, contemporaries of Jimmie and Montgomery, are billed as the Chorus in the script which points at their role in the narrative structure. Kofi was in the group home with Jimmie, and we learn about their past connection as the story unfolds.
If this is the first shot off the bow by Talbot and Fails, I am excited to see what they do next. This picture gives a mythic weight to San Francisco, lovingly capturing the details of the city and Jimmie’s house. Not everything here is literal, and fantasy melds with reality. The final image of the film could be read as an imagining by Montgomery about what happened to Jimmie. This is something extraordinary that pulls you in and tells you a story that feels profoundly familiar.