The Last Black Man in San Francisco, 2019.
Directed by Joe Talbot.
Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Mari Kearney, Tonya Glanz, Thora Birch, and Finn Wittrock.
A young man searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.
The prospect of a white young filmmaker tackling the issue of gentrification in the increasingly tumultuous San Francisco – a predominantly white technopolis if there ever was one – might raise eyebrows among some viewers, yet first-time director Joe Talbot acquits himself terrifically with this stunningly authentic ear-on-the-ground drama.
It helps, of course, that Talbot conceived the movie in conjunction with his black childhood friend and the movie’s star, Jimmie Fails, drawing on their experiences growing up in the city as teenagers, and witnessing how it has increasingly catered to the fancies of affluent whites at the expense of lower-class, predominantly black, residents.
Jimmie (Fails) is a San Francisco resident who dreams of reclaiming the classic Victorian home formerly owned by his father – and build by his grandfather – in the city’s Fillmore District. Today, the house is occupied by an upper middle-class white couple, but when circumstances leave it unoccupied, Jimmie decides to covertly move in, squatting with the hope of one day legally owning the house himself.
Gentrification has been one of the 21st century’s most important yet curiously under-explored societal issues, especially in cinematic terms, so Talbot’s film packs an especially unique and evocative punch right from the get-go. An opening sequence, in which a black man decries the region’s tainted water supply only being cleaned up once white affluents move there en masse speaks volumes about America’s class and racial struggle and quality-of-life gap.
The screenplay offers up incisive and eye-opening run-downs of the oft-unjust powers held by landlords – especially as it pertains to rent-controlled apartments – alongside the ethics of hoarding empty property, squatting and tourism, and also the masculine ills of gang violence and unchecked mental illness. When you tack all of these issues onto the base fact that gentrification drives property prices up to unsustainable levels for even many well-off whites, it’s a recipe for disaster that’s still falling on deaf ears for those who need to hear it the most (and who surely won’t see this film).
But The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t merely a simplistic scream at the void, and Talbot ensures not to fully let Jimmie and his friends off the hook either. Their squatting in property that isn’t in any legal sense theirs is not laughed off as some cutesy attempt to get one over on mustache-twirling whites, but uses it as a leaping-off point to explore the difference between the legal and moral rights to property, and how so much of life can be affected by the memories one attaches to possessions, especially buildings.
And by skirting far from presenting the city’s new residents as “villains”, the film instead depicts a social ill that’s far more banal – and therefore far more believable. As Talbot’s script aptly remarks at one point, “people aren’t one thing.”
This is all shot through memorably by not only Talbot’s trenchant script and beautiful filmmaking – its gorgeous cinematography accentuated by punchy editing and canny musical choices – but a marvelous cast. Fails, who drew directly from many of his own experiences and has never acted before, proves himself a jaw-dropping natural here, his stoic charisma ensuring Jimmie doesn’t just earn our sympathy; he’s intensely likeable to boot. If Fails wants a future in acting, it’s his for the taking.
Up-and-comer Jonathan Majors is also very strong as Jimmie’s pal Mont, while the cast is rounded out by some more familiar faces; Danny Glover, a San Francisco native who contacted the filmmakers to be part of the production, has a neat supporting role as Mont’s grandfather, while Mike Epps and Thora Birch show up for some well-placed cameos. That the film can feature three well-known actors without detracting from its pervading authenticity is impressive indeed.
It’s absolutely fair to say that this film isn’t sly or subtle in any way, but should it be? Are we really going to ask these filmmakers to protest this issue quietly? There’s a difference between emphatic and heavy-handed storytelling, and that Talbot and Fails shout it from the rooftops – even literally at one point – does nothing to undermine the effectiveness of the message.
At the same time, the film’s grandest emotional beats are only quietly heartbreaking, and it doesn’t have much interest in Oscar-baiting grandstanding, rather reflecting the affect-free slow-crawl of gentrification itself.
Its biggest narrative conceit is relatively predictable all things considered, though it serves a grander purpose of furthering the pic’s airy examination of the relationship between personal identity and property – and precisely how healthy, or not, that might be. Talbot and Fails don’t seem to see a solution or an end in sight for one of America’s most widespread socio-economic issues, but they provide some compelling food-for-thought for how we can all re-think the way we work and live, even in small ways.
A queasily authentic slice-of-life look at the human cost of “progress”, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a triumph of social realist filmmaking, topped by a fantastic performance from newcomer Jimmie Fails.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.