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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco comes to us from debut writer/producer Joe Talbot, partially based on his own upbringing in San Francisco with lead actor Jimmie Fails (also making his debut here, playing a character also named Jimmie Fails). The plot revolves around a house in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, Jimmie’s family home ever since it was built by his grandfather, until the Failses were evicted in the ’90s. Twenty years later, the house — as with much of San Francisco — is now owned by some aging white rich people with no appreciation for the history or property they are now responsible for.

Long story short (and we never even learn the full story anyway), the house is forcibly emptied as part of an estate dispute that could go on indefinitely. So Jimmie and his best friend (artist/playwright Montgomery Allen, played by Jonathan Majors) start squatting in the house and get to fixing it back up.

Given the premise centered on race and real estate in San Francisco, of course gentrification is going to be a huge theme. We’ve got clueless white people who appropriate culture and pat themselves on the back for not being as bad as the KKK. We’ve got people turning to crime because there’s no legitimate work for them — my personal favorite is Jimmie’s father (played by Rob Morgan), who’s got a counterfeit DVD racket. We’ve got Jamal Trulove and Jordan Gomes as two in a gang of ignorant preening tatted-up douchebags who waste their time with macho posturing because they’ve got nothing else to do and it’s the only culture they’ve got left.

Then of course there’s Danny Glover, turning in a welcome but sadly unmemorable performance as Montgomery’s invalid grandfather, too old and feeble for any work on his own and too poor to afford the kind of help he needs. We’ve even got Jimmie’s Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold), a black woman who straight-up left San Francisco rather than deal with all the bullshit going on in that town. Ditto for Jimmie’s mother — not even Jimmie himself knows where she is.

But even more than the problems of living as a poor man in an increasingly rich city, or as a black man in an increasingly white city, this is a movie about the concept of home. The movie devotes a lot of screen time to the kind of health problems and insanity so common among those without a roof over their heads. We get more than one example of naked crazy, and a street preacher proselytizing to nobody (played by Willie Hen) is a prominent motif. Then again, we see for ourselves in a brief scene that the preacher does indeed have a home, so maybe that has more to do with the feeling of impotence, screaming into the void because even that would be better than silence in the face of grave injustice.

But personally, I was most drawn to the question of what ownership really means. Jimmie and Montgomery are taking over this house and basically erasing all sign of its previous (technically current) owners, without the owners’ permission. How is that any different from what the white assholes did to Jimmie’s family back in the day, and does it make the reclaiming morally justified? Also, of course this is symbolic of white people appropriating black culture and Native American land and so on, but when you get right down to it, this process of taking shit over and rewriting its history is as old as civilization itself.

So who gets to decide what history matters? Who does any speck of land really belong to, and what responsibility comes with that ownership? What makes the difference between a house and a home, between a neighborhood and a community? Perhaps most importantly, what happens when you base your entire identity on a specific place that could be taken away at any moment, and backstory about the place that could be exposed as a lie at any time?

Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are magnetic performers, both more than capable of anchoring the film and providing all the heart it needs. Which is fortunate, because pretty much all of the supporting turns are so forgettable. Moreover, in the case of some comic relief characters (most especially the aforementioned street corner gang and the worthless clown played by Mike Epps), I actively wished they had less screen time. Oh, and while Thora Birch somehow got billing above Danny Glover, her little 30-second appearance doesn’t remotely deserve that.

Then again, very few of the supporting characters were ever meant to last for more than a couple of scenes apiece. So much of the movie is comprised of characters flitting in and out, hovering in the background somewhere. It gives the film a sense of personality, fitting for a portrait of a city and the citizens pushed to its gutters.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a slow burn, with long contemplative stretches punctuated by potent plot twists. Still, the movie gets away with taking its time, simply because of how dense it is with symbolism and thematic ruminations. Joe Talbot balances all of this superbly, with gorgeous visuals throughout, and the two lead performances alone are worth the cost of admission.

This one comes strongly recommended. Definitely seek it out.

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