A soulful rumination on culture and gentrification
As someone who has recently moved, I’ve become more aware of the issues of gentrification and my own contribution to such issues, despite my desire to preserve integrity and character in a neighborhood I appreciate. It’s a problem that is down to more than individuals, though, as wealth inequality and the failure of wages to keep pace with costs drive people out of their homes as the more affluent move in. This loss of culture and identity is at the heart of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, inspired by the real life story of Jimmie Fail, who also stars in the film, providing a soulful meditation on gentrification.
After Jimmie enlists his best friend Mont to help reclaim the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco, they begin a search for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind. A wistful odyssey populated by skaters, squatters, street preachers, playwrights, and other locals on the margins, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a poignant and sweeping story of hometowns and how they’re made — and kept alive — by the people who love them.
There are so many stories about the plight of those suffering a loss of their home or culture through gentrification, but it makes sense for a feature to zero in on one of the more bittersweet ones in a city that perhaps personifies the problem greater than most: San Francisco. It’s a beautiful backdrop to the moving tale, one captured in its aged beauty and natural surroundings, showcasing why so many may aspire to live there.
Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, who inspired the tale, in his first role) is pining for the loss of his childhood home, one built by his grandfather (the self-proclaimed “first black man in San Francisco”) in the 1940s. Now it lies in disrepair, with elderly owners whose financial investment falls far short of the emotional one he has for the property. After a period of time tending to the property, aided by his friend Mont (the superb Jonathan Majors), a bereavement offers a chance for Jimmie to move in and try to reclaim his heritage and home. What follows is a delve into his psyche as much it is the social shifts affecting the city and its residents. The house is a part of him, his identity, his family, and their history. It’s a journey about issues of self, figuring who you are and being true to it while everything around you changes. It’s a lovingly crafted feature, where idealism wins over cynicism, where a sense of community is championed even while mourning what is slipping away.
Fails, in his first acting first role, brings an affable and genuine presence, (unsurprisingly) convening authentic attachment to both the city and this home with a sense of whimsy. Majors crafts a more tender soul more rooted in reality; hardships from raising his blind father (Danny Glover) make him a contrast to the dreamy ideals of his friend. Where the film excels is in this depiction of their sincere friendship, using the innate charms of the pair as well as a number of montages and moments to draw us in. It gets a little saccharine at times, but the authenticity just manages to peek through. Last Black Man is replete with similar lovable characters and scenes set amidst the bustle of San Francisco, lovingly sketched by Talbot with his impressive direction and aided by a delightful woodwind score from Emile Mosseri that further plays with the emotions. While the film feels loose overall, ruminating with these places and people, the final act falls a little too far apart, embracing something a little saccharine and different in tone. It still stays true to the themes of the film, but the deliberate embrace of a heavier hand feels at odds with what came before. Still, this is an unforgettable feature about a city and its people that are disappearing from view.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a rather beautiful looking film and thankfully has a transfer to match. Colors are natural and strongly represented, the texture and detail of this house and the city in general are stunning. Extra features are sadly somewhat sparse:
- Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Joe Talbot: The only real extra feature of note, and Talbot is well worth a listen, conveying passion for the problems the film touches on, as well as insight into his debut directorial effort.
- “Ode to the City: Finding The Last Black Man in San Francisco” Featurette: A short addition that lacks any real depth, which highlights the lack of any meaningful featurette tackling the themes/social issues in the film.
- Digital download code
The Bottom Line
While its final act has some issues with tone, The Last Black Man in San Francisco remains a melancholic and poetic work, largely due to the work of its two leads and aplomb direction. A compelling and often beautiful piece of film-making, it brings heartfelt resonance to an immediate social issue hitting our communities and individuals everywhere.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand from August 27, 2019.