San Francisco has always been a city looking forward, trying its hardest to push California, the United States, and the entire world into the future its prominent citizens have envisioned. San Francisco was the epicenter for the gay rights movement, the Sexual Revolution, and hippie culture, among other liberal movements. It was the city where the United Nations Charter was drafted and ratified. Now it maintains its prominence in the world as a hub for today’s most innovative companies. The movements the city has made over the years and the people that have lived there have given San Francisco a status as a welcoming city for all types of people. However, the consequence of this has been that those people who have long inhabited San Francisco are being pushed out in favor of new groups of innovators with deep pockets as the city’s name has become synonymous with the highest costs of living in the United States. As white collar tech workers have come into the city, they have pushed the working class people out of their homes, torn down their homes and businesses with little regard for historical value, and set up new, homogenized neighborhoods while forgetting entirely about the people and places that preceded them.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, American director Joe Talbot‘s feature length debut that won awards for Best Directing and a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration following its Sundance premiere, tells the story of Jimmie Fails IV (Jimmie Fails), one of the forgotten victims of San Francisco’s rapid gentrification, trying to find his place in a changing city by reclaiming his childhood home. Based on the life of the director and the actual Jimmie Fails, a first time actor who portrays the character that bears his name, each moment is a thoughtfully crafted depiction of a city they both clearly love, a deliberate affirmation of a melancholic longing for the old San Francisco, and an attempt to grapple with the present reality of San Franciscan life.
Jimmie, unlike most of the residents of San Francisco, was born and raised in the city, as was his father, and his father before him. He spends his days with his best friend, Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors), often going to care for the beautiful old Victorian home that Jimmie and his father used to live in and that, as he is quick to tell anyone who will listen, his grandfather built in the 1940s. Unfortunately for Jimmie, the house is now occupied by a white couple who is less than enthusiastic about his continued presence and when they are forced to vacate the property, he is unable to afford the asking price for purchasing the home. Jimmie resorts to squatting as he spent years doing elsewhere with his father, and to refurbishing the home as it was in his youth. As they face the challenges that come with reclaiming the past, Jimmie and Mont encounter a cast of characters from their lives that have dealt with their exclusion from their city in varying manners, often falling back on toxic behaviours that have a tendency to come in conflict with the protagonists’ demeanors, especially that of the quiet Mont who would prefer to write plays about what he sees than to engage in the shouting matches taking place in the street in front of his home.
Though there is a plot to the film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco adopts a meandering style that allows beats to come and go as they please rather than conforming to a rigid narrative structure. The film fills in the gaps with lingering shots of beautiful cityscapes and people living their lives or vignettes that offer plenty of quotables and memorable encounters but, though stylistically masterful (especially for a first time director), the substance in the context of the entire film was lacking and often failed to build between scenes, instead relying on the strength of individual sequences.
In one of the most memorable and impactful moments, The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens on a man in a Hazmat suit cleaning some sort of unexplained danger while a young black girl, not protected from these dangers in any way, joyfully passes him by, and establishes the racial nature of the gentrification the city faces and the belief from the newcomers that they are helping and must be protected from what existed before. Later, a naked man sits next to Jimmie at a bus stop and waxes poetic about the changing face of San Francisco and the disregard the recent transplants have for the culture and value it already had. Though Jimmie treats this encounter as any other, without any additional thought given to the fact that his conversation partner is unclothed, but as a bus passes by, there are jeers that seem to confirm the truth of the conversation. Neither of these incidents is narratively connected to the rest of the film, nor are many other similar occurrences, but, despite two stellar lead performances, an outstanding score, and breathtaking cinematography, it is these small moments where the film is at its strongest and most firmly commits to its ideals. It is impossible to watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco and not be entirely absorbed in the details of life in the city, and on a moment-to-moment basis there are striking images and insightful monologues to be found within the film. However, when taken as a whole, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is never as compelling as any of the parts that make it up and, rather than meeting the loftiness of its ideals, the film compromises and concludes that gentrification is simply a part of the modern world that must be accepted rather than challenged.