Reclamation and Resistance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco

There are a lot of pretty movies and series about San Francisco, like the recent hit Always Be My Maybe, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City; but there is also a growing concern about the sterilization of neighborhoods once thought to be multicultural, unique and a site of generational preservation. Childhood friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails are far too familiar with this gentrification, and they bring the experience to the big screen with The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is a young black man who sees his San Francisco neighborhood changing and disappearing before his eyes. He lives with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Montgomery’s grandfather Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). He regularly visits his childhood home, built by his grandfather in 1946, filled with memories of living there as a child. He’s so enamoured of it he goes so far as to provide unsolicited maintenance of the property, like paint the window trim of the majestic Victorian home, to the chagrin of the current white, middle class owners.

When the home owners are locked out of the house due to a family dispute, Jimmie takes the opportunity to purchase the home. Because of the fast rise of gentrification in the San Francisco area, he can’t afford it, but that doesn’t stop him. Instead, he claims squatter’s rights, and with the help of Montgomery, they move his family heirlooms in and create a household of two. Their happiness is short-lived however when the reality of the situation, a family secret, plus the constant heckling of their curbside brotherhood of frenemies and a subsequent tragedy brings everything a fever pitch.

I normally don’t review non-horror films as a rule even though I watch a breadth of genres besides horror, but this film moved me so much, I had to write about it, especially because it inadvertently broaches the topic of Afrofuturism, which is in short, a movement to include blacks, their contributions and innovations in the future.

Fails broke my heart as a displaced man looking for his roots as the world around him changed. For blacks and most people of color who aren’t normally included in the future of cities and their economics, often forced to adapt without any help, the characters of Jimmie and Montgomery are extremely important. They not only insert themselves into a house taken over by white gentrification, but create their own narrative of reclamation which is the essence of what Afrofuturism is all about. They are also unique personalities, and their pseudo-nerdiness is a contrast to their ‘hood homeboys who hide behind their masculinity; an opt out of stereotype. Jimmie refuses to let the black psyche of the house and the neighborhood disintegrate, and fights for his right to be present. This refusal of being erased in itself is an archetype of the black experience.

Montgomery (Majors) and Jimmie (Fails) walk the streets of their neighborhood. Copyright Sundance Institute.

Director Talbot and star/writer Fails, who are born and bred San Franciscans, created this project they started as teenagers. This labour of love took 5 years to make and is also a collaboration of the future: it’s possible to have a white director and a black cast using their own voices instead of a white writer assuming the actions of character of color. There has to be a point where collaborations like this happen organically and speaks to truths, much like Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames; a feminist futuristic collaboration of both queer and POC voices.

Talbot creates a beautiful tableau of the city, with the vibrancy of a whimsical storybook and the grit of true life. Both Talbot and Fails incorporate a quirk reminiscent of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson, but they make it their own, putting a unique spin on this type of storytelling. The entire cast was brilliant, including real residents from their Fillmore District neighborhood and punk legend Jello Biafra in a cameo, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Majors’ performance as Montgomery. This the first time I’ve seen him in a film, and he brings such intensity to the role that I know he’ll be someone I look out for.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an award winner at Sundance, is required viewing for its emotional portrayal gentrification and staying true to oneself, and on a deeper level, for those who has felt invisible, invalidated and a misfit.