Discover more from Movie Night
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
You don’t get to hate it unless you love it
Every two weeks, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) attend to a majestic Queen Anne house in San Francisco. Mont serves as lookout while Jimmie paints the window trim, waters plants, and performs other general upkeep. They don’t get paid for the work. The people who live there don’t even want them coming around, chasing Jimmie away with thrown croissants and overpriced produce. For Jimmie, this is an act of devotion. He’s the caretaker of the house his grandfather built, a home he had lived in as a child until his father lost it in the throes of drug addiction. When the residents move away after a death in the family, Jimmie and Mont move in. Ultimately, this works out poorly for them, as it usually does for protagonists in movies featuring unattainable homes (e.g., Parasite (2019), House of Sand and Fog (2003), and The Money Pit (1986)).
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) is about home--the structure itself and the city. And yes, this being San Francisco, the movie is about gentrification, about white, startup hipsters descending on the city like locusts, pushing black people into polluted, undesirable corners or far-flung suburbs an endless BART ride away. However, the director and writers focus on the experience of the dispossessed, the meaning of home and its loss.
After his father lost the house, Jimmie lived in a group home, squatted in a warehouse, and slept in a car. Before moving back into the house, he stayed with Mont, sleeping on the floor, inches from his bed. Mont’s home is his grandfather’s house in Hunters Point, a low-income neighborhood on the edge of San Francisco and the polluted site of a decommissioned Navy shipyard. This home sustains Mont emotionally. Mont’s grandfather (long-time San Francisco resident, Danny Glover, appearing again in a Bay Area movie) adores him. Their love for each other is most apparent when they huddle together on the couch like co-conspirators as Mont describes what is happening on TV to his grandfather, who is blind. Jimmie looks on from the floor or wedged into the other side of the sofa--on the sofa, but far removed from this unashamed lovefest. Jimmie doesn’t know love like this. His parents abandoned him when he was young, and his callous mother continues to reject him in adulthood. The absence of his parents fuels his need for a physical home, a place he belongs, a structure that roots him to the city and ties him to his past.
Despite a difficult life, Jimmie is kind and gentle. He works at a nursing home, caring for vulnerable residents with compassion and good humor. He’s a loyal friend to Mont, a talented artist and playwright with a loose grasp on reality.
Mont sees Jimmie struggle with the impending loss of the house, so he stages a play with the ulterior motive of showing Jimmie that he is much more than the house and that he can get past its loss. (As a side note to my friends, I want this if I ever require an intervention. A musical could be nice too.) In his explosive, one-man production, Mont dramatizes the murder of a young man who lived in the neighborhood, showing that he died because the world puts people into boxes, where multi-faceted people are one thing only--a street thug in the young man’s case. But the truth is that the young man was so much more. He had dimensions, as Mont says. Mont desperately wants to show Jimmie that he is more than a house or a city that rejects long-time residents like him.
Mont is wrong on several counts. Jimmie was not put into a 7x7 box, limiting the expression of his being. Instead, the house and the city shaped him, making him more than he would have been in their absence. Jimmie wouldn’t be a carpenter or an amateur historian if he didn’t need those skills to serve the house. If he hadn’t spent so much time maintaining a building over a hundred years old and needing constant care, he probably wouldn’t see the value in caring for the elderly at the nursing home. Jimmie acknowledges the house probably saved his life. He grew up in the same group home as the murdered man and could have easily shared his fate.
Mont also underplays the consequences of losing a home, which is easy to do from the comfort of a loving home. Look at refugee camps around the world, reservations in America, or just take a brisk walk through the Tenderloin. The loss of home is devastating. Once uprooted, people cannot easily reestablish themselves somewhere else. Something is always lost. Mont, himself, would be shattered if he had somehow lost his home, the place his grandfather lavishes him with love.
If you don’t already love San Francisco and acknowledge its unparalleled beauty, this movie will bludgeon you into submission with shot after gorgeous shot. See the street preacher perched on a crate, the bulky form of a massive ship in the bay behind; Jimmie, made tiny by the enormous hill that is California Street, zigzags down on his skateboard as a streetcar slowly pulls itself up the steep incline, and the hulking Bay Bridge lurks between tall buildings like Galacticus; Mont stands morosely in a fish market, surrounded by jeweled fish on ice, shackled invertebrates stacked like firewood in tanks. Even waiting for the bus is a gorgeous pastoral scene from a Renaissance painting. Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot spent a decade making this movie, an unabashed love letter to the city. And perhaps also a farewell.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Written by Jimmie Fails, Joe Talbot, and Rob Richert; Directed by Joe Talbot
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Free on Kanopy if you have a library card.
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
It was a Saturday in March of 2015, and I was glistening with sweat on the 8th floor of a San Francisco office building on Market and Van Ness. The guy sitting directly behind me had just started, and he was brimming with excitement and energy, much like myself, to have a foot in the door at a tech company that we thought was making the world a better place. The guy, Zach Goldstein, had a million (correct) thoughts on things we were doing as a company that were insane. Still, it’d be a few years before we learned that improving customer outcomes is not the primary motivator in the tech sector. A few weeks later, he showed me a Kickstarter he and his friends had put together for a film they were making. I watched the trailer they’d mocked up and was blown away. I immediately contributed five hundred bucks, a week’s pay for me then. Zach gave me a wide-eyed, big hug, thanking me for the significant pledge. He didn’t need to thank me; these guys were clearly talented. Easiest five hundred bucks I’ve ever thrown at artists.
Two years go by. The Kickstarter goes down. I assume the whole thing is a bust. Damn. C’est la kickstarter.
In 2017, a coworker asked me if I’d like to attend a company event. A local filmmaker is screening a short film he’s made to help get him across the finish line for making his feature-length. That filmmaker is Joe Talbot, and I’m sitting 12 feet away from the guy who took my five hundred bucks and never responded to my short email asking for a “status update” on the movie. Rather than take this golden opportunity to ask for a response to my email, I decided just to enjoy the short film (it was excellent) and continue to quietly root for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which finally opened nationwide in 2019 with the help of A24 and a slew of talented filmmakers. I watched in the Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission and was proud to see my name (within a few slots of Barry Jenkins!) in the credits.
I suppose the story's moral is to support artists you believe in. Do it, knowing it might not work out.