‘Last Black Man’: an Elegy for a Vanishing City
Startling moments of mournful grace adorn The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a grimly playful domestic elegy layered with deeply tender pain. A devastating portrait of displacement that nonetheless finds joy in sorrow, life in death, and catharsis in a lifetime of pent-up rage, it’s both Move On and Never Forget. And it’s an exorcism of gentrification’s ghosts.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Joe Talbot
Written by: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert
Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold
Running time: 120 min
Actor Jimmie Fails plays dreamer Jimmie Fails, an African-American Bay Area native long ago evicted from his childhood home, a majestic Victorian-style house in the city’s Fillmore District, once considered the “Harlem of the West.” According to family lore, Fails’ grandfather built that house with his own two hands in 1946. Now, because of an estate squabble involving some subsequent white owners, the grand home sits empty. So Fails’ aspirational entitlement drives him to repossess it, even if that means illegally squatting there after a bit of forced entry.
You can’t blame him. The stunning abode, an exemplar of mid-19th-century architecture, is a bone-white shingled house with gingerbread trim, dotted with red, pink, and crimson accents and modestly ribboned with gold. The inside boasts head-to-toe wood paneling, drop-dead period lighting fixtures, a lobby with a pipe organ, and a secret room just off a bespoke library stuffed with Charles Dickens and Langford Hughes. There’s even an upstairs sauna.
But who truly appreciates it? The old white folks with their growling lapdogs and their three-dollar red peppers? The people whose four-million-dollar residences have priced out any semblance of home-grown community? The ones who run Segway tourist groups through the district and refer to its antebellum history as “before the black thing”?
“Philistines, bro,” says Fails’ best friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring graphic artist and playwright who makes ends meet as a fishmonger. Fails and Allen are both crashing with Allen’s uncle (Danny Glover), who has a modest townhouse on the edge of the city. They resist the thug postures that some of their friends use to project confidence and intimidation. But they’re also in the thick of it, and it’s impossible to ignore palpable violence in the streets. How do you rise above when the world keeps stepping on you?
“You can’t Google what’s going on right here,” says an apple-crate preacher to no one in particular as he stands next to San Francisco’s polluted harbor. “Are you all paying attention?” And out from the poisoned sea jumps a fish with both eyes on one side. Their environment is damaged. Even worse, their society is riven.
Last Black Man is a movie about not just rootlessness but disorientation, where cable cars are full of frat boys and homeless men sing arias from Madame Butterfly. As Joni Mitchell sings in “Blue,” a song the film aptly uses: “Crown and anchor me / Or let me sail away.” Fails and Allen are betwixt and between, victims of a liminal state as well as a culture indifferent to their fate.
A too-generous running time dilutes some of the cumulative power of this beautiful open wound of a film. Joe Talbot’s hypnotic directing style creates a beguiling feast for the eyes out of the gate. But deep into the second hour of Last Black Man, that winning visual flair starts to lose its richness, as do the script’s themes. Then again, it’s hard to fault any ending that encapsulates a story’s emotional contradictions, or a character’s proprietary grievances, with such spiritual eloquence: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” says Fails to some bitchy newcomers. Do you love it? You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” Here endeth the lesson.