Review: A24's Gorgeous ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Centers the Black Experience and Considers What We've Lost
What American society tells us about homeownership is that if you work hard enough, sacrifice enough, give of yourself enough, you can buy property. You can buy land. You can buy somewhere to grow old, where your children can join you, where your children’s children can run and play. You are beholden to no one once you own something of your own. You are your own person.
We know this is a lie, of course. After the bottom fell out of the housing market some time ago (remember The Big Short?), there was all this talk about making things better for the average person. The Dodd-Frank Act was supposed to help stop the bleed during the Great Recession. Naturally, the Trump Administration started dismantling it and rolling back portions of it last year. New homes are being built in America, sure, but they’re often astronomically expensive, too expensive for first-time homebuyers, millennials saddled with thousands and thousands of dollars in student debt. Rents are going up, too, more and more every year, because apartment management companies are taking advantage of the people who can’t buy. The gap between those who can afford a home, that most primary example of the American Dream, and those who cannot, and who society tells us are therefore worthless, feels insurmountable. I’m in that latter group. I know what it feels like. It feels like you’re setting money on fire and watching the ashes blow away. It feels like a wound.
The pain of that, of knowing that you can work desperately hard for something—and that your ancestors worked desperately hard for something—but that all of your effort amounts to nothing is the crux of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. This is a film with moments so gorgeous and so raw and so honest that I started crying about 10 minutes in and couldn’t really will myself to stop. That’s not to say this is entirely a depressing film. There is joy in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and wittiness, and verve, captured within picturesque tableaus of the black American experience: men playing dominos, children running on the playground, young men exalting in a summer afternoon. Those brief periods of happiness in our days that make up a life.
But the counterpoint is how The Last Black Man in San Francisco considers humanity’s inherent loneliness, and its analysis of that is authentic and profound. The way you can be sitting in a room, surrounded by people, all watching a theater performance together, and feel a swell of emotion you would never share. The experience of riding a bus, everyone going toward one general destination, before peeling off into separate avenues; that unified momentum only gets you so far. The dual feeling of potential and competition when wandering through an open house; as you consider your dreams for a space, everyone else is doing the same thing, and wondering which one of you will end up the victor in this bidding war. You can spend years of your life with someone but never really know them, never really understand what motivates them or drives them. We are all hiding behind a locked door, and not everyone gets all the way inside.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows two young black men living in what is now one of the most expensive cities in America: Jimmie Fails (played by the same-named actor, Jimmie Fails), a man distanced from his family literally and figuratively, and Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), a dreamer, an artist, and a playwright. Each of them has aspirations different from their everyday lives and responsibilities. Mont works at a fish market but yearns to put on plays and performances, to use the myriad details he observes of other people’s lives—the routine of the street preacher, the posturing of other young black men—to make art inspired by the real world. Jimmie, who is kind and patient with the residents of the nursing home where he works, is obsessed with a gorgeous home in the middle of downtown San Francisco, a towering creation of creamy wood and burgundy trim with a witch’s hat roof and a solitary tower. “My grandfather built this,” Jimmie says, and his father lost it, and it’s Jimmie’s dream to get it back.
There are obstacles to this, naturally. A well-to-do white family owns the home now, and doesn’t take too well to Jimmie coming by every other weekend and sprucing it up (pulling weeds, painting trim, making the home match the vision he has in his mind). Jimmie and Mont don’t have any money. And the San Francisco that they remember is not the San Francisco that now is. Jimmie has no idea where his mother is, and his relationship with his father (Rob Morgan, who I am glad to see again after his excellent turn in Mudbound), who lost that beautiful house, is strained. The only person Jimmie is close to is his aunt, Wanda (Tichina Arnold), but high home prices have pushed her and her husband out of town. Mont lives with his grandfather (Danny Glover, doing beautiful work) in Hunter’s Point, a black neighborhood of San Francisco that is only now receiving attention because of gentrification; men in Hazmat suits clean up the shoreline while black children play. Otherwise, the place is isolated. Buses rarely come through. The pier where Mont goes to rehearse his plays never has any other boats docked there. And the fish who flop up onto his little raft have four eyes—the radiation from the decades-ago testing of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory still lingers.
Director Joe Talbot, who cowrote the film with Fails, makes all of this distance very real. It takes forever for Jimmie and Mont to get anywhere. The people they interact with most are their peers, the other black men who mock them—Jimmie for his Good Times-like red plaid shirt; Mont for his strangeness—but that tattooed, bejeweled group serves as a Greek chorus of sorts, narrating what Jimmie and Mont are feeling. When Jimmie and Mont invite one of the Greek chorus members, Kofi (Jamal Trulove), into their friendship, it’s an olive branch that doesn’t go quite as they expected. But those moments of generosity of spirit are what The Last Black Man in San Francisco is interested in: What do you do when your home no longer exists? How do you build a family? Who do you trust, and who do you love, and who do you mourn? And, most importantly, where do you belong?
In one of our greatest American novels, Beloved, Toni Morrison wrote “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” Everyone in The Last Black Man in San Francisco is trying to get free: of the weight of history, of the weight of homelessness, of the weight of heterosexual expectations, of the weight of very real racism, of the weight of poverty, of the weight of loneliness. “People aren’t one thing … See beyond the stories we are born into,” Mont tells Jimmie, but how to escape a reality that tells you different? That wants to limit you, contain you? “If you’re going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair … There’s a whole generation/With a new explanation,” Scott McKenzie sang in “San Francisco,” but the wide-openness those people are looking for is lost, traded in for multimillion-dollar condos, for overpriced acai bowl food trucks, for high-paying tech jobs at meaningless startups. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a eulogy for an American way of life that doesn’t exist anymore, and how it finds poignant beauty in undeniable tragedy will hit you right in the heart.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is playing in limited release around the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): A24, YouTube/The Last Black Man in San Francisco