Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Mike Epps, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Finn Wittrock, Maximilienne Ewalt, Thora Birch
Director: Joe Talbot
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Holding onto the memories of childhood is a central component in the alchemy of nostalgia, and Joe Talbot’s debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, understands the difference between holding on and letting go. The film is steeped in a heightened atmosphere of sun and fog; with Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography presenting San Francisco as both dreamlike and harsh, favoring hazy visuals which accentuate the whimsical tone. However, Talbot isn’t simply after pat nostalgia here, as the rallying cry against gentrification and the state of the urban black experience remains a central theme. The film is a high-wire act; part droll comedy, part tale of male friendship, and part downbeat ode to a disappearing way of life. Mostly, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels alive and malleable in a way few films do, even on the independent scale.
When we first meet our mismatched pair of friends Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), they are waiting at a bus stop across the street from a preacher standing on a milk crate ranting against the ills of modern society. Meanwhile, a Hazmat crew rummages the area cleaning up after an unspecified toxic situation. Fed up with all the commotion, Mont and Jimmie hop onto a skateboard and decide to hightail it into the city rather than wait for the bus. This is San Francisco.
The sight of two grown men skateboarding down city streets is undeniably humorous, but the film also seems aware of this. There’s something about these two friends which strikes one as juvenile, and yet there’s a genuine intimacy there. The harkening back to youthful dreams isn’t simply immaturity, though. There’s real pain, regret, and sadness here too. These are two men trapped in a physical, mental, and emotional space which resists authentic change. Once the thread is introduced of Jimmie taking trips into the city so he can touch up the paint on the exterior of his childhood home which his family lost possession of in the 1990s, it’s clear there’s more going on here than simple nostalgia.
Jimmie is under the impression that his grandfather built the house in 1946, back when many Japanese residents were relocated to internment camps. A myth around the “first black man in San Francisco” took hold, crystalizing Jimmie’s belief that he has a moral right to the house, even if it is now owned by a white woman (Maximilienne Ewalt), who irately throws fruit at him whenever she spots him fixing the window trim. The notion of families being destroyed and split apart because of institutional racism is one of the main thrusts of Talbot’s film, but these ideas are presented lyrically rather via soapbox messaging. The extraordinary performances also help, including newcomer Fails as a young man unable to break free from being pushed out of his true home. A scene where he visits his embittered father (Rob Morgan) has a legitimate awkwardness which requires a quiet sensitivity from the actor, and there’s an equally heartbreaking moment where he runs into his mother on the bus which speaks to the character’s feelings of abandonment. Majors has a splashier role as the aspiring writer dressed in ‘50s era business clothes, but he never overreaches with a character who could have easily been twee, bringing an off-kilter rhythm and unique line delivery to his scenes. Mont is also caught in state of arrested development, but he exudes such sincerity that his co-dependent relationship with Jimmie never reads as unhealthy.
Eventually, an inheritance dispute arises which leaves the Victorian-style home in a limbo state, and naturally, the two pals move out of Mont’s dad’s (Danny Glover) cramped space and into the house. Using a form of “squatters rights”, along with the ideological justification of ownership, Jimmie and Mont begin acting out an urban fairytale in which two low-income black men are living freely in one of the city’s most expensive (and almost exclusively white) neighborhoods. There’s a subplot involving some of Jimmie’s old friends who gather talking shit outside Mont’s dads spot and a tragic circumstance surrounding that group, as well as a thread involving Mont struggling to write a play which will eventually come full circle, but narrative momentum is not the main concern here. Instead, the idea of letting go of the past and forging ahead, even as others around you seem to deny the very existence of that past, is at the heart of the film.
The elegiac finale; which takes on the tenor of a dream caught in the swirl of pensive reality, suggests there’s no true home for someone like Jimmie. This displacement, which mirrors the displacement of countless African Americans in San Francisco and other major cities, is perfectly summed up in a late scene where Jimmie counters the complaints of a white woman (Thora Birch) on the bus with You can only hate San Francisco if you love it. What a bittersweet statement, and what a beautifully bittersweet film.