In a film adapted from star Jimmie Fails’ own life experiences, The Last Black Man in San Francisco examines one man’s relationship with history, gentrification, and the city he comes from.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco details the many complex relationships present in Jimmie Fails’ life. The main focus is his nostalgic and loving connection to his childhood house, built by his grandfather in 1946 but ultimately taken by the city — or, more specifically, by gentrification. Because of this theft, Jimmie has an estranged relationship with his parents, who squatted in homes until Jimmie was sent to a foster home during his teenage years.
In adulthood, Jimmie meets Montgomery, a thespian looking to the streets to inspire his next play. The two fix up Jimmie’s old house, to the dismay of the older couple that live there. That is, until that couple is forced to move out, and Jimmie and Mont take back what was theirs.
The most important relationship of them all is Jimmie’s relationship with the city of San Francisco. Every connection and interest in his life stems from this city, a city that seems to be leaving him, and in extension its black population as a whole, behind in a cloud of toxic water and homelessness.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film clearly made with love. The camera presents every part of the city in soft focus and direct light, making everything feel like a stage show, or a glossy romance film. The sets are also crafted with loving detail; you can tell everything about a character just from the stuff within their living space.
These characters are fleshed out by the performances, which are fantastic across the board. While the film is not a documentary, Jimmie Fails essentially plays himself. The film is inspired by his experiences, which were adapted for the screen by Fails and first-time director Joe Talbot. He gives a muted performance, but much of the emotion can be felt in small details, like his eyes. Jonathon Majors gives life to Montgomery, whose socially awkward tics explode into an unforgettable performance near the end.
These two characters also share a comforting and compelling friendship, their bond expressed in actions rather than words. When they ride a skateboard together, perfectly synchronizing their accelerations, their connection is instantly felt. Their positive male relationship also serves to critique toxic masculinity, especially in young black men. We see guys that grew up with Jimmie and Mont tearing them down with insults, not to mention brutally ragging on each other. This plotline provides many gut-punches, in which these unlikable guys soon become complex people with their own misguided morals and desires for emotional outlets.
This complexity in present in almost every single character. No one is just one archetype; everyone is more than who they outwardly appear to be. This message on diversity serves as the heart of The Last Black Man, which wants to show how everyone and everything has multiple sides. Those young men may throw insults, but deep down they’re still human. Jimmie and Mont may be a bit odd, but at the end of the day they want a home, they want family, they want a stable life.
San Francisco itself is a multi-layered city, evolving over time yet never truly letting its past die. As newer generations, specifically rich white people, move in, they take homes away from the Black people who built those houses. Yet, they themselves took the land from the Asian population that were rounded up and mistreated by the U.S. during WWII. The past is ugly, and while these events gave our characters what few good things they have, it also stains the positive feelings they could have for the city.
The film questions what is actually ours, and what we as human beings actually have ownership over. Young adults today may never own their own homes, and expensive houses can be emptied and put on the market in less than 24 hours. Should we invest in our things, our living spaces? Or should we focus on improving the lives of the people around us, finding ourselves in the process?
The Last Black Man doesn’t have all the answers, because it simply can’t solve the deep-rooted problems of gentrification, generational disparity, and toxic masculinity. What it does do is present a universal story full of rich characters and understandable themes. Despite the ugliness present in San Francisco, from the nuclear water to the alarming homeless population, Jimmie still loves this city. The city takes and rarely gives, but Jimmie still fights to preserve it and his place within it. His relationship with San Francisco is just as complex as everyone and everything else in the film. There are no right answers, only explorations of how we navigate through these emotions.
As Jimmie says in the film, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”