Balancing together on the same beat-up skateboard, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) fly through the streets of San Francisco. A symphony of soaring strings and thunderous, belting horns explodes behind them – over the top of which, a soapbox preacher urges that ‘We are these homes! We built them!… This is our home!’ That which the preacher is referring to are the towering, glimmering townhouses that line the hills of San Francisco. Houses that will roughly set you back as least a couple of million dollars. On their skateboard, Jimmie and Montgomery cruise past these houses – as well as images of black neighbourhoods, brownfield construction sites, countless homeless individuals, and iPhone-yielding Silicon Valley tech workers. This is how Joe Talbot opens up his directorial debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco – an angry love letter to the city he and co-writer Jimmie Fails grew up in. Undoubtedly one of the most significant films of the year, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a joyous yet heart-breaking portrait of gentrification, race, and how to find a home in a city that will never love you back.
Photo © Peter Prato / Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Since the 1970s, the black population of San Francisco has dwindled from 13% to just 5%. The city has transformed from the counterculture capital of the world to the home of tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Facebook. This surge of wealth has had a landslide effect on San Francisco’s real estate market – the current median cost of a house in San Francisco is 1.3 million dollars. With many working-class and black communities unable to meet such unimaginable housing costs, families have either been pushed out The Golden Gate City or left homeless. This rings true for Jimmie – most of his family has moved to either LA or the suburbs and Jimmie now lives with Montgomery and his grandfather (Danny Glover). Based on Jimmie Fails’ own experiences, The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows Jimmie as he tries to get back the house his grandfather once built. His grandfather – who referred to himself as ‘the first black man in San Francisco’ – built a magnificent townhouse in the 1940s but somewhere down the line Jimmie’s family lost ownership.
Photo © A24
Although not technically his, Jimmie still regularly visits the house to re-paint the windowsills and fix up the garden – much to the annoyance of the elderly white couple living there. Shortly into the film, the couple living there are forced to move out due to an inheritance lawsuit. With the house empty, Jimmie and Montgomery unlawfully move in to reclaim what was once Jimmie’s. They race around the house like children – yelling at the top of their lungs, playing music as loud as they want, and kitting out the house with all their favourite furniture. In essence, they are living out the millennial fantasy of ever being able to have a house to call your own. It’s a fragile and delicate existence for the pair. It’s fun to indulge in the whimsical dream that Jimmie and Montgomery can potter around their garden all day and shack up rent-free in the house Jimmie’s grandfather built. However, overhanging their situation is the looming problem of greedy realtors and a house that is still owned by someone else. Here, Talbot takes a looking glass to the fragility of material ownership and examines what can truly ever be ours – as one character puts it, ‘You never really own shit’.
Photo © A24
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film filled with empathy – resulting in some pretty heart-breaking scenes as Talbot zooms in on the humiliating and frustrating nature of having something you love taken away from you. However, there’s a lot of joy in this film. Jimmie and Montgomery’s friendship is heart-warming, sweet-natured and an important and authentic exploration of black masculinity. There’s also a lot of humour in this portrayal of San Francisco, Montgomery is a slightly bizarre but endearing scene-stealer who offers audiences unconventional but wise ways of viewing the world. Not only is The Last Black Man in San Francisco thematically rich but visually it’s remarkable. Consisting of romantic, swooping, slow zoom-ins of the city and bright, warm tones – Talbot paints a beautiful, pastoral scene of the city he yearns to still call home.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an emotionally complex look at the push-and-pull dynamics of loving an ever-changing and unforgiving city. Diving deep into the emotional repercussions of location-based identity, unsustainable and ruthless gentrification and losing ownership – Talbot’s debut is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and thematically important films to grace 2019 so far.
Written by Abi Aherne