what does it mean to have a home? on THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails' breakout film from A24 blends emotional strings about the love of one's city with the grief from its inevitable gentrification. Warning: spoilers ahead.
“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” This is what Jimmie Fails, the protagonist of the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, says to two women on a Muni bus. Jimmie is a black man and a multi-generational San Franciscan. The women he talks with are white and are newcomers to the city, they talk of San Francisco as a drag, as dirty- and as being a disappointment, in comparison to its portrayal across media. San Francisco, in their knowledge, had always presented itself as one of the most desirable places to be. Jimmie cannot help but ask the women, “Do you love it here?," only to receive a lukewarm response; they are apathetic to the city in which they have inserted themselves. For them, San Francisco is not a place to live, but somewhere to be. And this is when Jimmie tells them: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ breakout film from A24, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is a highly intricate narrative that weaves together not only the prevailing social issues black San Franciscans have faced- and continue to face- but the psychological and emotional impact of these issues as well. Inspired by the life story of the film’s writer and star, Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells the story of a displaced young black man fascinated with a house in the Fillmore district; this is not a house he owns, because he cannot go in whenever he pleases. Instead, he watches the house and waits. Eventually, he is granted access to the inside, an intimate, yet modest act of justice that propels the story into uncharted territories.
Much of the talk surrounding The Last Black Man in San Francisco hails its most salient quality: the film’s portrayal of gentrification. It's no secret that several of the most
culturally interesting, economically disenfranchised, and diverse places in the country are slowly being transformed into hubs for capitalist development. New industries, such as the sprawl of Silicon Valley, are reconfiguring the landscape of urban environments to reflect the interests of upper class white folks while simultaneously pushing out those who have lived in and loved these cities for generations.
While San Francisco is a premium example of the gentrification crisis, that is not all that the film has to offer; The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a meditation on home, love, loss, instability, longing, and the plight black ownership, all within the scope of two hours. Talbot and Fails utilize every aspect of cinema- from the performances, to the score, to the cinematography- in an effort to reinforce these themes in a way so deeply touching it is almost impossible to describe; despite this, I will try the best I can to communicate the beauty, nuance, and significance of this incredible project.
It is revealed within the first half-hour of the film that the reason Jimmie is so interested in the house in the Fillmore is because it was built by his grandfather. At first the house is lived in by an old white couple; when they have to move due to a family death, the house is left vacant- that is, until Jimmie and his friend Montgomery (Johnathan Majors) break in and squat in the now-abandoned home. Soon later, Jimmie hears a group of tourists stop in front of the house; he climbs out of the attic to see the flock on segways, led by a man loudly explaining how the house was built in the late 1800s. Jimmie looks down at the group and lets them know that a white man did not build the home, and that his grandfather- the first black architect in the city- did. The tour guide disagrees, pointing out the Victorian architect of the house. However, this does not faze Jimmie, and with that, the tour moves along and Jimmie stays on top of the house, victorious.
Although Jimmie’s grandfather built the house, the family no longer owns it- financial trouble in the 1990's caused them to sell the property. With the selling of the property, Jimmie’s family began to disperse around the Bay Area and beyond. His aunt (Tichina Arnold) lives far from the city in a farm town; his father (Rob Morgan) lives in a run-down apartment in a rougher part of the city; and his mother (played by Jimmie Fails' real-life mother) is nowhere to be found, until they have an awkward reunion on a Muni bus that ends as quickly as it starts. Jimmie is the only person within his family that has not left the city- physically or emotionally. His heart and soul are still fully developed in the place he grew up, his foot still hitting the pavement as he cruises through San Francisco on his skateboard with ease.
Jimmie’s desire for the house on Fillmore is representative of the need for stability and ownership. We learn later in the film that Jimmie was once in a group home as a teenager; as an adult, he still has no place of his own. He lives with Montgomery in a tiny room with barely any space to walk in. Jimmie, like the majority of young people today, wants nothing more than a place to live. Although he can technically stay with Montgomery, he cannot live there; to be able to live is to be able to have agency over oneself and freedom to do what one wants. The only way Jimmie believes he'd be able to achieve this kind of freedom is to go back to his locus: the only home he's ever wanted.
Ownership is incredibly important for black people. For the entirety of our time in the United States, we have been abused, subjected, and disenfranchised by white colonial powers. These powers did all that they could- institutionally, psychologically- to break the black spirit and bar the black population from amassing any kind of security. In the post-slavery era, black people have been kept from having livable incomes, non-stereotypical jobs, a quality education, healthy food, and proper housing. For many black families, the only thing they own is the car. Everything else is in a state a flux.
The house on Fillmore for Jimmie is the symbol of black ownership. When he is in the house, he finally feels like he belongs in San Francisco. He is enveloped in this joy that one can really only understand if they have been through a similar experience. The house is everything to Jimmie: it is his childhood, his achievement, and the only thing keeping him from leaving San Francisco all together.
The significance of black ownership is reinforced when Montgomery breaks the news to Jimmie that his grandfather did not actually build the house. During a meta one-man show Montgomery puts on in the house in the last quarter of the film, Montgomery, dressed as a preacher, talks directly to Jimmie. He begs him to realize that he does not need to define himself by the house. When Jimmie begins to get visibly upset, Montgomery yells “Your grandfather didn’t build this house! It’s not yours!” Jimmie’s face falls in the most heartbreaking way, mainly because it's not dramatic- it's a slow realization that morphs into confusion and grief. When the audience members leave, Jimmie has a one-on-one conversation with his father; Jimmie wants his father to tell him the truth, but is father is hard and indignant, sticking to the narrative they both know is false. With the idealized image of the Fillmore home shattered, Jimmie is left lost once again.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film that has so much depth to it that it is impossible to encapsulate all in one review. Although I can write about the themes, the hauntingly passionate rendition of “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” sung by Mike Marshall and composed by Emil Mossari, the stunning use of wide shots that perfectly communicate the feel of the city to those who do not live there, so on and so forth, words do not compare to the visual experience itself. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a must see for all of those in the Bay Area and beyond. It is truly a cinematic experience unlike anything I have seen before. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails: Thank you for your love and dedication to art, filmmaking, and San Francisco.
Kaila Cherry is a 19-year-old writer and filmmaker based in the Bay Area of California. A lover and admirer of art in all its various forms, she aims to create works that hinges on realism and gives significance to the nuances of the everyday life. She likes the fact that her last name is a fruit because she knows she will never get confused for someone else.