MovieMonday: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

This unusual film tells a simple but deeply affecting story.

The title character, Jimmie Fails (played by a man named Jimmie Fails) is emotionally attached to his grandfather’s house in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, the site of Jimmie’s fondest memories.

When he visits the house, he touches up the paint on the window sills and tends the plants in the yard.  The residents resent him, but his intentions are good and he means no harm.

Jimmie currently shares a room with his friend, Mont (the also terrific Jonathan Majors) in Mont’s grandfather’s house in faraway Hunter’s Point.  Mont is a careful observer who sketches what he sees and aims to write a play.  Both men have ho-hum jobs.  They move around town on Jimmie’s old skateboard.

Eventually, the Fillmore house becomes vacant, and Jimmie and Mont move in as squatters.  Events proceed from there.

What makes the movie special is its tonal harmony.  Jimmie’s sense of dislocation is personal — childhood time spent in a group home, a later period living in an old yellow Eldorado sedan — but of a piece with that of San Francisco itself.

In the film, groups of tourists zip around on Segways and in buses that look like cable cars while listening to tunes from the 1960s.  Homeless people crowd stairways to Bay Area Rapid Transit stations.  A gray-haired man, naked but for shoes and a fedora, strolls to a bus stop.  (For many decades now, city activists have agitated for nudist rights.)

In Mont’s traditional black neighborhood, workers in hazmat suits collect toxic trash while a street preacher urges “purification” and for people to fight for their homes and their lives.  Across the street, a group of five trash-talking young black men form a sort of Greek chorus of anger and brittle hostility.

Eventually, the Victorian home is put up for sale.  Jimmie tries sincerely to convince a banker that he will take care of the house and make every mortgage payment, but the listing price, $4 million, is clearly out of his reach.  There is no place for people like Jimmie and Mont in the city where they and their grandparents were born.  Jimmie’s longing is palpable but unsolvable.  In San Francisco, he is not the only one.

The movie was co-written and directed by Joe Talbot, another San Francisco native and a longtime friend of Jimmie Fail.  Each regrets that the city’s gentrification effectively leaves no room for those who have spent their lives there.

The acting, cinematography and musical score are all excellent and carry this theme without ever putting it into words.  But the message is unmistakable in a film worth seeing.

Note

With most movies, you get standard plots.  If you go to a superhero movie or a horror movie or a young adult comedy, you know pretty much what to expect.  This may satisfy some, but the sameness tends to dull the level of interest.”The Last Black Man” is one of several recent African American-derived films that have broken out of traditional constraints.  Two notable others are 2016’s Moonlight and last year’s Blindspotting, which largely was an observation of current-day Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco.

San Francisco over Time

The San Francisco that tourists visit today — loved for Victorian homes like the mid-19th century one in this film — got its first growth spurt when its deep port and banks accommodated and financed the California gold rush.  (A half century later, Seattle came into its own as the jumping-off point for prospectors during another gold rush in the Yukon.)

African Americans began arriving in the city in the 20th century as part of a national migration out of the rural South.  The Fillmore neighborhood in the film was sometimes described as a West Coast Harlem, but in fact it had a broadly diverse population that included Anglos and Asian Americans.  After World War II, there came a trend of government-initiated “urban renewal” in San Francisco and other cities.  The effect, and probably the intent, was to move minorities out of convenient and pleasant neighborhoods.

Housing was always expensive in San Francisco, but by the1980s the city’s dynamism was at a low point.  People who relocated there did so for lifestyle preferences and often at some cost to their careers.  The largest industry was tourism, and middle-class families fled for suburban schools and affordable homes.  By 2000, San Francisco was home to more pet dogs than children, a ratio that seems not to have changed in the intervening years.

The city’s latest trend of gentrification can be attributed to the tech boom — Cisco, Intel, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, etc. — that brought great wealth to the Bay Area and re-established San Francisco as the West Coast’s premier financial center as well as a desirable home for newly rich techies.

The Millennium Tower, 52 stories of expensive condos built to conform to San Francisco’s very strict earthquake and engineering standards, has sunk more than 15 inches and tilted almost as much since its opening 10 years ago.  It can be seen as a symbol of a city that ain’t what it used to be.

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