For the first couple of minutes in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man In San Francisco, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching some kind of arthouse science-fiction film. Men in HAZMAT suits troll around, testing the water in San Francisco Bay, finally cleaning the toxic soup after years of neglect. Then the focus shifts onto our protagonists, Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend and aspiring playwright Montgomery or “Mont” (Jonathan Majors), skating through their city’s streets. In a single scene you’ll be greeted by everything that Jimmie and Mont hate and love about San Francisco; the tech-bros, the weird hippies, street preachers, shopkeepers, and spontaneous nudists. Like all urban environments, it’s a series of communities that are placed right next to, or on top of one another and are constantly in flux. In The Last Black Man In San Francisco, that’s something to savour, but also something worthy of suspicion.
Jimmie grew up in a house that his grandfather built with his bare hands in 1946, or so the story goes. Though the house’s architectural details; the fish scales, the witch’s hat, the balconies, and the ‘wall to keep [Segway-riding tourists] out’ are indicative of construction from a century prior, Jimmie clings to the notion of his family’s legacy being tied up in the house. He and his father James (Rob Morgan) were pushed out of that house and their neighbourhood long ago, sleeping in cars and in group homes, with Jimmie ultimately landing with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover). But Jimmie takes it upon himself to return to the house, painting the trim and attending to the flowers, to the chagrin of the new (white) residents. When the ownership of the house is thrown into turmoil after death, though, Jimmie takes the radical step of breaking in, reinstalling his family’s old furniture that’s been locked in storage for years, and squatting, staking a claim on his family turf.
This is a story about people who are so achingly in love with their city, and want so desperately to weave themselves into its fibres but have been shut out. In the Fillmore neighbourhood where Jimmie and his friends reside, the slow but maddening trickle of gentrification is eroding their community, once known as the “Harlem of the West”. The concept of gentrification (“economic development” if you’re a politician, an enterprising real estate agent, or the beneficiary of either) is certainly not unique to San Francisco, but the dissonance present in a neighbourhood that was once the home of African-Americans and Japanese immigrants, many of the latter rounded up and interned in camps during WW2, is palpable in Talbot’s film.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco deals with many of the same class struggles that Boots Riley’s (also Oakland-set) Sorry To Bother You does, without any of the bombast, body horror, or sly humour that made that film one of my favourites of last year. That’s not to say that Talbot’s film is inferior in any way – in fact, it does mood a lot better – but it’s a far quieter, more poetic piece that’s aiming for a completely different tone than Riley’s film did. Still, the class divide between the long-time residents of Fillmore and the white folks, both residents and real-estate agents, that increasingly control it is as clear as day.
San Francisco is a city that’s already full of music – the Mamas, the Papas, and, as a woman remarks to Jimmie on the bus, “Janis and the Airplane.” In any other film about San Francisco, a house music remix of California Dreamin would be cliche, at best, but Talbot makes it work here, along with his own haunting compositions. The music clashes in the most pleasantly unexpected ways with the electric performances from Fails, Majors, and the Greek chorus of young men that antagonize Jimmie and Mont throughout the film.
Look, I get it; a prestige drama about gentrification, especially as it’s director’s Kickstarter-funded debut, was never going to be on anyone’s shortlists for one of the best films of the year. But I’m here to tell you that Joe Talbot has crafted an essential, deeply personal story that’s imbued with magic. Despite the real weight of the story, there’s an effortless beauty to it, and the kind of layered complexity that aches to be savoured, over and over again. You can, and should, read The Last Black Man in San Francisco as a love story between a man and his home; his city, his neighborhood, and his house. And like all great romances, that love is constantly tested and in peril. Like the city itself, The Last Black Man In San Francisco will make you angry, daring you to hate it, until you realize that the only way to get to that place of hate, is if there’s real love underneath.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco will be released theatrically on July 5.