There’s a specific pain in loving a place that’s changing — or has already changed — beyond recognition. At this point, no city, big or small, is safe from rejuvenation, gentrification, restoration, displacement, or whatever other words are used to describe the replacement of lived-in places with the garish sleekness of new apartments. The film The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about characters grappling with their struggle to keep living in a city where the Black population is shrinking, and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,700.
The movie is directed by Joe Talbot, roughly based on the life of his childhood friend Jimmie Fails (who stars in the movie, as a character named Jimmie Fails). Both are San Franciscans whose families have lived in the city for generations and now have to contend with the fact that what they know and love is, if not gone, completely changed. (For reference, Talbot is white and Fails is Black.)
Jimmie is living with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) in Hunter’s Point, one of the last predominantly Black neighborhoods in San Francisco. The house is barely big enough for Jimmie, Montgomery, and his grandpa (Danny Glover). Jimmie fantasizes about having his own place, specifically the towering Victorian house where his family once lived in the heart of the city, formerly known as the “Harlem of the West.” The family lost the house years ago, but Jimmie visits the house bi-weekly to do repairs, gardening, and paint touch-ups, much to the annoyance of its current residents. Jimmie tells anyone who will listen, including a Segway tour group, that the house is special because his grandpa built it himself in the 1940s. He feels he has a right to the house, even when it goes up for sale for $4 million.
When the current owners also lose the house, Jimmie and Montgomery begin squatting. They do so as long as they can until reality (a realtor) catches up. Jimmie has to reckon with the fact that you can never really own a place.
The movie is a sweeping and visually stunning story that captures the friction of a changing city. Some aspects are specific to San Francisco, others are echoed in a place like Pittsburgh, where the tech industry is also reshaping the city. At a bus stop, a butt-naked man sits down next to Jimmie, and when a party bus of drunk bros drive by, they start chanting at him. Jimmie identifies more with the naked man. When Jimmie rides his skateboard down a main drag, he’s met with stares from businessmen. Even when he makes it into the old house, Jimmie is filled with the feeling that maybe a millionaire deserves to live in it more.
The film spends a lot of time exploring the effects of a changing city, but it’s actually more about Jimmie and Montgomery’s tender friendship. They’re a bit of an odd couple, in that Jimmie is naturally cool and Montgomery is not. Jimmie wears a flannel and rides a skateboard, and Montgomery runs alongside it in his socks and sandals. But the two have a friendship that runs deep. Montgomery supports Jimmie’s efforts with the house until the very end. In return, Jimmie is encouraging of the play Montgomery is writing. When they hug, they hug hard.
While The Last Black Man is a sometimes staggering effort, it’s also imperfect. The movie is bursting at the seams with how many topics it wants to cover — how much it wants the audience to feel — that it sometimes becomes overwrought. They squeeze in, for example, the shooting death of an old friend from Hunter’s Point, but don’t weave it into the story enough to make a statement about gun violence, other than to provide melancholic material for the characters. The music choices, while often poignant, can also come off as affected, like when Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” plays over a scene of five men fighting.
The movie’s critique of the new version of the city is not always as biting as it could be, it’s closer to a resigned acceptance. Spitting venom at the tech bros won’t bring the old San Francisco back, and it’s their city now, too.
It will come for us all one day. You’ll either be priced out of your neighborhood or city, or you’ll become the one pricing someone else out. Maybe both. Maybe, one day, the tech bubble will burst, and its employees will get priced out and decry the loss of their city.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens Fri., July 5 at the Manor Theatre.