Joe Talbot invites us into a magical San Francisco, where we follow Jimmie and his best friend, Mont. There is a sense of reality in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, lent to the fact that many of the actors are playing versions of themselves. Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot are childhood friends, both growing up in San Francisco, turned filmmakers. The relationships that blossom on screen between the cast of black men are extremely touching. They exist outside of the societal expectations and on screen portrayals of what relationships between black men are expected and allowed to be.
The opening shot alone brought me to tears. Something about the iconic geography of San Francisco paired with Talbot’s tracking shot uphill feels so fitting. We follow a little girl through her neighborhood that is facing an environmental crises just out of frame, our setting almost a dreamscape. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film grounded in the concept of home, engrossing the audience in Jimmie’s own contentious battle with it.
Home becomes the neighborhoods of San Francisco that we are taken back and forth from. There is the one Jimmie is trying to escape, rich with the people he has grown up with; and the second, that symbolizes a better time in his life. The second neighborhood represents the past, a past that has no place in the present. The two neighborhoods are a physical separation and harrowing reminder of the gentrification of black neighborhoods. There is a cheapening of the black culture that exists within these neighborhoods, shown in the hints of “hipster” culture sprinkled throughout; acai bowls, skateboarding and Jimmie’s father’s aversion to it, all in their own ways gentrified parts of other cultures.
To Jimmie home is the house from four generations ago, the one his father lost after missing rent payments, a direct result in the rise of housing due to gentrification. This house is one of the most important things to him, the last thing he has. And Jimmie spends the whole film trying to get it back.
His father tells him,“Then you know that’s not your old house and you know that’s not your black ass neighborhood,” keying us in that Jimmie is indeed the last black man still trying to be at home in a place that has long quit making room for him.
San Francisco has been the home of his entire family for generations, the fable of James Fails the First building their house from the ground up, follows Jimmie like a dream. “His grandfather built it. The first black man in San Francisco, that’s what they call him at least,” Mont tells Jimmie’s childhood friend, Kofi. The burden of having to uphold what he deems an important part of his family’s history and his last connection to that family, keep him moving forward through the film.
Born and raised in this city, Jimmie has spent his life watching San Francisco slowly and yet all once, change. Taken over by people who have never and will never, value it for its culture and history. San Francisco has become a hub for hipsters and upper class white people.
As Jimmie and Mont return to gather an assortment of hats and other personal belongings to adorn their new home, the group of young men in front of Mont’s house start yelling at them. Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack heightens the weight of the scene as Jimmie and Mont face them with stoic silence. Kofi is at the center of the yelling, degrading Jimmie and Mont and their home, even after visiting them. The shift from being accepted by Jimmie and Mont without having to put on a charade of hypermasculinity is juxtaposed to him stepping into that very role, now surrounded by his gang.
“Jimmie. Jimmie… Go home!” leaves goosebumps and stings my eyes with tears. Jimmie is constantly without a home, his desire to have a space of his own consumes him. And to finally have that space only for it to be thrown back in his face is gut wrenching. Mont’s garage where they share a bedroom lacks the space to feel like it belongs to him. Jimmie is now missing his family home, the only thing tying him to his family. Between years living in a car, a year in a group home, and squatting with his dad; the repetitious lack of a home in Jimmie’s life points to his loss of family. With their belongings on the sidewalk it feels like yet again Jimmie is homeless. “We have my house,” Mont delivers teary eyed, the pain of seeing his best friend so stuck on having this one unattainable thing, heartbreaking.
“I just don’t get it.” Jimmie yells. Finally, the emotions of the film come to a peak, after Kofi’s death. The film crescendoes into the crying of Jordan as he drops his bravado and leans against Jimmie. The two hug and for the first time these men become more than the tough men they present themselves as. On this street corner they stand, broken down into people tired of the lives they have to try so hard to keep up with.
The last thirty minutes of the film are an emotionally evoking sequence of revelations and acceptance. Mont capturing the details of the people he’s spent so long learning and loving, in his play. Their lives are brought together in the interconnected, overlapping way he’s viewed them.
As Jimmie talks with his aunt, we see a woman who has given this city her all. Next to Jimmie, it’s clear that this is a family who loves their city. These people are at the heart of the city, they have spent their lives in San Francisco. They have spent their lives fighting to belong in it. Their hatred is born out of a frustrated love and feeling of rejection. Most importantly their hatred feels earned.
As Jimmie is riding the bus back, after saying his goodbye to his house, he overhears two white women conversing. One saying something along the lines of, “I’m not above living in a former crack house.” They continue to profess their placid uninterest with the city ending with,“Seriously fuck this city”. It is in this moment Jimmie interrupts them, “Excuse me- you don’t get to hate San Francisco”. There is no question or suggestion to his statement, he simply is telling them how it is, then asking, “Do you love it?”
Mont goes back to the house, now for sale and completely changed. It’s almost heartbreaking to see how drastic things have changed. The entire interior lacks the color and vibrancy that it had during Jimmie and Mont’s residency. As he looks around the house the parallels between the lack of color in the home and the neighborhood, all white, are startling. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails beautiful storytelling aided so perfectly by Jonathan Majors’ acting and Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack.
Jimmie delivers the final and most damning line of the film,“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” The film comes together so perfectly, something extremely haunting about this closing statement. This city is more than just a city. San Francisco is a central part of Jimmie’s life, family, and history. He has grown up here, he has hurt and lost here, he has loved here. He can hate this city, he has earned that, but these women who are suffering from nothing but white privilege. They are glaringly part of the problem, playing into the system of oppression that is pushing black people out of homes. They certainly have not earned the right to hate the city. Jimmie’s deliver of those accusatory questions are so powerful. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is without a doubt, the best release of 2019.
“I’m the last one left”
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