THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO. Country, USA. Director: Joe Talbot. Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Tichina Arnold, Finn Wittrock, Thora Birch. Screenwriter: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert. Language: English. Runtime: 122 minutes. Venue: Angelika Film Center, NYC. Rating: A+.
So far, this has been a landmark year for original voices telling their stories, and in this case, there have been so far three movies tackling the topic of gentrification and cultural identity in widely dissimilar ways. The Farewell, currently playing in cinemas, takes on the loss of a cultural heritage through the guise of the impending death of a much loved relative. The yet to be released De Lo Mio from Dominican Republic gets a bit closer to gentrification through the omnipresence of a house in Santiago, about to be demolished. The one I’m about to review i also from a first time director. Joe Talbot adapts Jimmie Fails’ story of trying to recover his childhood home in San Francisco in the poignant, melancholic mood piece The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which focuses on two close friends, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) whose lives are closely tied to a Victorian house in the Fillmore district of San Francisco.
Jimmie has been closely guarding this house as if he were a faithful guard-dog waiting for the past to come back, At the start of the film you get to see him lovingly tending to it as if he were its lifelong caretaker. This is a man who truly loves this house in question and you wonder, “Why? It’s not his.” You see, Jimmie used to live in this house, which his grandfather told him he built in 1946. His very sense of identity, itself braided into memory, is tied to this place that now houses a white yuppie couple who seem to know who he is, but who don’t really care for his intrusions, particularly the wife, who seems a bit off as well.
It’s never quite explained what exactly went wrong with Jimmie’s family. It seems that Jimmie’s father hit on some hard times and bad business deals. The mother, who appears in a brief scene later, left. Jimmie himself was rendered practically homeless, going from place to place. Essentially, Jimmie became rootless, and now spends time with his artist and writer friend Mont and his disabled father (played by Danny Glover, in a quiet but thoughtful performance).
As luck, destiny, maybe the gods themselves, would have it, some situation happens and the yuppie couple is forced to move out. An idea springs into Jimmie’s head. In a wonderful sequence full of joy and warmth, Jimmie and Mont enter the house and begin to occupy every frame of it. Jimmie, for an ecstatic moment, is back where be belongs, basically claiming the house as his, placing the utility bills to his name, It’s a wonderful fantasy, but where there is a house in a neighborhood in the midst of gentrification, there will be a realtor coming in for the spoils to then renovate and place a price tag in the millions. And that is money that Jimmie does not have.
Even so, we root for Jimmie while all the time basically shaking our heads. The guy is really likeable, but a bit clueless as to how life itself works. There are moments when you want to scream at the camera for Jimmie to get on his feet and get his head out of the clouds. Even a visit to his sister (Tichina Arnold, in two sharp as nails scenes that are too brief), who has moved out of the city and into a neighborhood she can afford seems to beg at Jimmie to please wake up. However, as can happen with places where one has a special connection to, outgrowing that isn’t as easy as it seems. Soon, a major plot point involving the aforementioned specter of a realtor (Finn Wittrock) and a play Mont is writing will come to the foreground to threaten Jimmie’s dream.
Stories like these are heartbreaking because they basically only offer one solution, and that one is a step that Jimmie just can’t take, and his inability basically leaves him hanging, and no, that is not a spoiler. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a sad song filled with broken dreams that can never be put back together, and is a bleak reminder of what happens to neighborhoods that lose their own sense of identity to real estate developers swooping in to create ultra chic enclaves for the affluent. Like Wuthering Heights, Jimmie is inextricably bound to this house, and perhaps will be for the remainder of his life. And that, in a way, is a tragedy.