BAPL Feature Movie of the Month: A Review of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

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Joe Talbot’s debut film, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” is a whimsical love letter to Talbot’s childhood friend Jimmie Fails and Talbot’s home, the San Francisco Bay Area. Closely mirroring the life of Jimmie Fails, who played himself in the film, the story takes up considerations of male friendship, toxic masculinity, identity, home ownership, and gentrification. This movie is currently the Featured Movie at Bethlehem Area Public Library (BAPL) for the month of July. When you become a library member, you can access the movie for free. Community members who wish to discuss the film after watching it can attend a virtual film club on Thursday July 30th at 7:30 PM through BAPL, share favorite moments from the film, and explore its political import.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” bends in eccentric and mischievous ways, just as the two protagonists weave down San Francisco streets aboard Jimmie’s iconic skateboard, the two defiantly clinging to each other as they move over hills and around curves. For the most part, the film follows the quiet, tender friendship of Jimmie Fails and Montgomery, a writer and artist, and explores Jimmie’s ambition to get back his family home after his family had been evicted, due to financial instability and encroaching gentrification. Armed with the family history that Jimmie’s grandfather built the ornate and beautiful house, Jimmie and Montgomery return weekly to the house in order to paint the windowsills or clear out the garden. Jimmie repeatedly criticizes the current white owners for not valuing what they have, saying that they “are killing this house.” Jimmie has a real tenderness and connection with the space. The house acts as a lifeline to his childhood and the security that this home provided. This sense of security is especially poignant because the viewer later finds that Jimmie had spent many of his later years in group homes or living out of a car with his dad after their family lost the house.

At an opportune moment, Jimmie and Montgomery find that there has been an estate conflict, and the current owners have to move out. Jimmie and Montgomery devise a way to break in and squat in the newly empty house, once again making the house their own. Jimmie rebels against his family’s advice that “you never really own shit” and hopes his labor to improve the house will finally affirm his sense of belonging in a city that is rapidly changing and excluding people like him. The two friends face suspicion from white neighbors and betrayal from realtors as retaining possession of the house leads to a desperate crisis of identity for Jimmie. Montgomery, ever the quiet observant writer, eventually devises a play that explores this crisis of identity, ultimately arguing through the play that Jimmie’s sense of self should not depend on a house that has been in his family for generations.

Throughout the film, Montgomery interacts with the world in a truly magical way. In each scene the viewer can see Mont’s imagination at work, conjuring and directing the life he sees around him, as if it were a play. In one scene, Montgomery walks up to the chorus of Black men who hang out and “talk shit” outside his house on the sidewalk as two of the men begin an argument. Montgomery can clearly see their motivations, and though they mock him as he approaches, he gives instructions as if a director, revealing to the watcher what he had seen and what many viewers might have missed. The fight involves one man criticizing another for not exhibiting an aggressive form of masculinity. Montgomery captures this conflict it in his play, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which he will perform in the ornate house as an act of intervention in Jimmie’s crisis of identity.

Montgomery’s play ultimately reenacts the death of Kofi, the man on the sidewalk who had been criticized for his lack of strong masculinity. Montgomery leverages Kofi’s death in the play to decry the consequences of toxic masculinity and performative shows of grief on social media. Montgomery’s play ultimately turns into a plea, especially for his dear friend Jimmie, to realize something essential in the face of gentrification and the conflict of his past.  Montgomery has undoubtedly learned the truth that Jimmie’s grandfather did not build the house. Instead, Mont argues that “you exist beyond these walls… You exist beyond your forefathers.” While Mont acknowledges the changes in San Francisco, like gentrification, that are pushing people like Jimmie’s family out, he also argues for the idea that despite whether Jimmie owns the house, or whether his grandfather built it, Jimmie still deserves to be valued, still belongs in San Francisco regardless of home ownership.

The film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is well aware of the ways that the system is stacked against Jimmie and Montgomery. And though the film does not hide from racism and classism, it portrays them in a way that highlights these structures as everyday and pervasive realities, rather than dramatic singular events. Repeatedly, the white characters as they interact with the two Black friends point out that they should call the cops, but that they “wouldn’t do that,” implying that they are making a play to be on the right side of history, yet simultaneously threatening these men. The white realtor that Jimmie and Montgomery go to for help makes speeches about injustice, yet betrays them and ultimately kicks them out of the house in order to make millions selling it. In a similar way, San Francisco is presented as both a place that is home, but also a city that is stuck in systems of gentrification and floods of opportunity-seekers that economically threaten the livelihoods and housing prospects of locals.

This theme of an evolving San Francisco is emphasized in one scene in which Jimmie sits at the bus stop and is unfazed by the naked homeless man that sits next to him. As they talk about the city taking a bad turn, a group of nicely dressed white men on a party cable car roll up and start mocking them drunkenly. Facing each other across the street, the two distinct groups reflect a conflict between loving the place and its oddities, and the way that outsiders are encroaching on San Francisco and doing whatever they want because they have money. When a privileged white girl transplant complains about San Francisco in one of the last bus scenes, Jimmie corrects her saying: “you don’t get to hate this place unless you also love this place.” For Jimmie, hating San Francisco without loving it results in the kind of damage that destroys the odd and wonderful uniqueness of the city, that destroys histories and communities for the sake of profit.

“The Last Man in San Francisco” is a beautiful examination of the friendship of two Black men, and how their friendship allows them both to succeed and find self-definition. The splash of the odd and absurd, the strength of the acting, the vulnerability of the friendship, and Jimmie’s desires for home make this an incredibly profound viewing experience that will keep you thinking about the majestic camera work and nuanced commentary for days.

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