“Do you love it? You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
So utters Jimmie Fails, the main character in Joe Talbot’s gorgeous yet bittersweet feature directorial debut, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Fails is playing a version of himself from a script he co-wrote with friend and longtime collaborator Talbot, navigating his way through a gentrified version of the town he grew up in, the town that molded him, but inevitably the town he feels has left him behind.
Jimmie has bounced around from living situation to living situation, as good as his grandfather’s former Victorian-style home and as bad as the city’s group homes. Now, he’s living with his eccentric but artistically gifted best friend, Montgomery (a rising Jonathan Majors in his best role yet), sleeping on a blow-up mattress next to Montgomery’s bed in what looks to be nothing more than a garage or a forgotten addition to his grandfather’s house.
Jimmie spends his time performing chores around his grandfather’s former house, raking leaves, painting window sills - regular upkeep things. The only problem? His family stopped being able to afford it in the ’90s. Now a white family with no emotional connection to the place lives there, taking the house for granted as its value skyrockets to $4 million.
One day when he’s performing his duties, Jimmie notices the white family is moving out. According to a smarmy real estate agent (Finn Wittrock, seemingly typecast in the role after last year’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”), the family is embroiled in a sort of custody battle over the property that could take years to resolve. Jimmie and Montgomery decide to move in.
What ensues from Talbot and the two lead actors is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of two young men grappling with a city that doesn’t have space for them anymore. Talbot and Fails - both Bay Area natives - craft a deeply personal yet relatable meditation on freedom, masculinity and striking the balance between holding on and letting go.
Talbot accomplishes this with help from cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra and composer Emile Mosseri, whose sweeping wide shots and piano-heavy score strike a balance between grand and focused. The filmmakers turn Jimmie into a speck on a wide-angle canvas of San Francisco, further demonstrating how he feels: small, miniscule, barely a blip on the radar of his city, where he grew up as the town grew over him.
When a group of white vacationers getting a guided tour of the city roll up on the house on Segways, the guide bellows factual information about the house, how it was built in the 1850s in a neighborhood largely populated by Japanese-Americans until they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. From the house’s balcony, Jimmie corrects the guide, saying his grandfather, the so-called “first black man in San Francisco,” came from New Orleans to build the house with his bare hands in the 1940s. Even as the guide tries to convince Jimmie with architectural facts and tidbits about the city’s history, Jimmie remains immovable.
To him and his family, the house is more than a house. It doesn’t have a coveted view of the Golden Gate Bridge and, as Montgomery points out, it doesn’t even have a septic tank. But to these men, the house symbolizes one last glimpse of true independence, hearkening back to the time when the city that molded them wasn’t so toxic. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” forces Jimmy and Montgomery to come to terms with their city, and more importantly, themselves in it, and the results are another high-art winner for distributor A24.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover
Directed by Joe Talbot