The Last Black Man In San Francisco mourns for a city lost, and the city that never was
Jimmie Fails skateboards down the hills of San Francisco fearlessly. The steep slopes that have been perfect setting for some of the most thrilling car chases in cinema history are simply the pavement beneath his wheels. He careens effortlessly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Yet no matter where he goes, he is always drawn back to the house he grew up in–a beautiful three-story Victorian house in the Fillmore district. The only problem? He doesn't live there anymore, and hasn't for some time. It is now owned by an older white couple, who deeply resent Jimmie's continued attempts to fix up the house exteriors like he still owns the place. Jimmie haunts the property like a ghost. Yet he is not the only ghost; the San Francisco we see here is one populated so much by the memory of those who used to live there but can no longer afford to–priced out by gentrification.
The tech industry might have started booming in Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, but it didn't take long for its many young and rich employees to migrate north, buying up property and forever changing the face of the city. "Google buses" shepherd them from the urban landscape down to the tech oasis. Now, to be considered middle class by the standards of the city, you have to earn around $192,000 a year. When my fiancée was in graduate school in Berkeley, we were trying to figure out whether to live in the Bay Area or Philadelphia. She got a job offer in Wilmington, but other than that, we also considered the fact that the cost of living is roughly half here of what it is there. San Francisco, and increasingly the entire Bay Area, isn't a place where regular people can survive anymore.
Jimmie (Falls playing a semi-fictionalized version of himself) spends his days with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who works at a seafood market. At night they return to Mont's grandfather's house, a tiny place in the Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood. It is a predominantly black area far removed from the cultural centerpoints of the city, and an area rife with the effects of environmental racism. When they find that the owners of Jimmie's old house have been evicted through a family financial squabble (the movie does make a point to gawk at the pettiness of the rich who can let a big house sit empty in the midst of one of the worst housing crises in the nation), they hatch a plan. Well, it's not much of a plan: they get Jimmie's dad's old furniture, in storage at his aunt's house, and move in. Well, they squat.
When a Segway tour of local houses stops by outside the house, Jimmie corrects the tour guide (played by Jello Biafra!) who says it was built in the 19th century. Jimmie tells them it was built by his grandfather, a World War II veteran who was looking for a place to settle down. He found himself a piece of land in an old Japanese neighborhood that had recently been cleared out due to internment camp relocation (a powerful detail, which they interestingly don’t linger on for long), and made his dream home. In Jimmie's world, the house is like a birthright of his, one that is stronger than the forces of late capitalism that continually force out the marginalized.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco is a gorgeous ode to a beautiful city, one that, to quote Jimmie, ‘you can't hate unless you also love it.’ With two enormous bridges, bizarre and indescribable weather patterns that shroud the city in a mysterious mist, the best food and coffee in the country, and entrenched immigrant communities, there is no place else like it. It makes sense that anybody would want to treat the city as their personal oasis. Unfortunately, in a world where the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, a perceived oasis is going to turn into private property. Towards the end of the film, as the stories that populate Jimmie's world start to show their cracks, he and Mont question their place in the city. Maybe they can't find a home there, but is there really a home for them anywhere? As black and brown folks were brought over to this country in bondage, in the bottom of slave ships, was this a country that was ever made for them? Through progress and time, and even relocation (Jimmie's family came to San Francisco escaping the racism of the South, like so many others did in The Great Migration), they have made their places, their neighborhoods, their homes. But The Last Black Man In San Francisco made me think of what kind of true security, if any, we have ever offered the black folks in this country.
The film is visually stunning in a way that reminded me of Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, but with doses of whimsy and sense of a heightened reality that set it apart. The slower pace and embrace of Shakespearean storytelling techniques (the shit talking boys on the corner near Mont's house provide the role of the Greek Chorus), turn it into something familiar that I wanted to live in for a while. It is a film that you want to step into, like the sailboat in the painting in Mont's room. Sometimes, when the world offers no comforting answers, disappearing into a beautiful piece of art is the only sensible choice.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco opens in Philly theaters this evening.