One of the scariest and most lasting cinematic images from my childhood is when those astronauts show up at Elliot’s house for E.T. Man — or rather, man augmented — descends upon one family’s home with the entire calvary, willing to turn everything upside down. E.T. comes into Elliot’s family and deepens that sense of home. The calvary comes in and tears that feeling asunder.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” filmmaker Joe Talbot’s first feature, opens in Bayview Hunter's Point, a black neighborhood pushing up against the edges of the San Francisco Bay. Here, decaying nature and dying industry oddly entwine. A young black girl evoking Ruby Bridges faces someone in a hazmat suit. Nearby, an older man - a neighborhood purveyor of the pseudo philosophical — wonders why “they” get hazmat suits while “we’re” forced to deal with whatever’s in the air and water. Indeed, if the calvary finally came to help, wouldn’t residents get hazmat suits too?
Touching issues like environmental racism, gentrification, and masculinity, at its core, this is a film about home, friendship, and family. Based on the real-life friendship between director-writer Joe Talbot and actor-writer Jimmie Falls, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, tells the story of Jimmie and his best friend Monty (Jonathan Majors), two young black San Franciscans struggling to create a space for themselves in their rapidly changing city.
The duo primarily gets around by skateboard, a single board at that, reiterating how tethered these two are to each other. This isn’t a movie made by filmmakers who have a distance from the city, with longwinded establishing shots of hotspots like Lombard Street or the Transamerica Pyramid. Rather than the tour bus vantage, these filmmakers travel off the beaten path, taking you where they’d actually go themselves, where you can go and get the real good food.
Jimmie works at a nursing home and Monty at a fish shop. But when they aren’t working or crashing with Monty’s blind Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover), they’re traveling to Fillmore District, once considered the Harlem of the West. Prior to that Fillmore had a strong Japanese presence, until many were forced into internment camps. This sort of musical chairs of the marginalized feels reminiscent of blacks who found refuge in Indian Territory before it became Oklahoma.
Jimmie and Monty go to Fillmore for one reason — a majestic Victorian home built by Jimmie’s grandfather during that black heyday. The structure stands out in particular for its “witch’s hat” rooftop. Jimmie spent the first few years of his life here, when his parents were still together. Since, he’s bounced around and has seen his parents hop in and out of his life. While the home is now in the possession of an older white couple, that doesn’t stop Jimmie and Monty from stopping by to slap a fresh coat of red paint on a windowsill, or complain about the garden being in disrepair.
It takes a while for the film’s narrative to get going in earnest, but eventually the couple is pulled away by a family emergency, prompting Jimmie and Monty to take up residence there. They start out sleeping on the floor and bit by bit begin to make it their own. In a highlight scene, Jimmie, perched on his widow’s walk, sees an all-yuppie electric scooter tour down below. The tour guide talks up the mighty Victorian home, and its storied history, dating all the way back to its construction in the 1850s. The man is sure of his history, but Jimmie is more sure of his, delivering a righteous monologue and an ode to his grandfather who built the entire home with his own two hands.
On the one hand, it seems like victory, a young black man who knows his history talking down to a flock of gentrifiers ignorant of theirs. The tour guide’s face flashes insecurity. But then, they move on — to the next home, and the next story. How can Jimmie and Monty possibly carry the history of their entire neighborhood?
Speaking of Monty, when he’s not working at the fish shop, he is also trying to put on a play — a show eventually held in their Victorian home. The more introverted and cautious one, Monty spends time in a mirror performing more stereotypical ways of being black. “What’s good, nigga?!,” he asks, with escalating edge. This has significance in the third act with his play. But also, the two boys have various run-ins with a group of fellow young black men in their Bayview Hunter's Point hood.
I have mixed feelings about this depiction and these characters who start to feel one note after a while. Other reviewers call them a Greek chorus, constantly arguing, posturing, and carrying out a toxic brand of masculinity sometimes at the expense of Jimmie and Monty. In a film that certainly can be described as literary, perhaps this sort of reiteration and lack of progression makes sense. We do find out more about one kid, Kofi (Jamal Trulove), who used to live in a group home with Jimmie and defend him.
Maybe what’s disappointing to me is the cliched and unearned fate here. We don’t see it, but Kofi ends up smack talking the wrong guy and is shot dead. But who shot him? There’s no sense that there’s anyone else but them on these streets. And while those youth certainly weren’t holding a book club, earlier scenes don’t suggest this sort of deep and extreme violence, either. There is a powerful moment, however, when one of Kofi’s friends breaks down in tears on Jimmie’s shoulder. At last, the veil is lifted.
I’d also like to briefly give love to this film’s music, including a theme song of sorts by none other than Mike Marshall of “I Got 5 on It” fame who we actually see on screen. This has been quite the year for Marshall, whose story I also talk about in my Jordan Peele Us review. The Bay Area’s Nate Dogg is rising once again.
Jimmie and Monty eventually realize that while squatting has its perks, they want more lasting claim to their Victorian home. They enlist the help of a realtor whose office feels more like that of a private eye, illuminated by a neon light outside in some seedy district. At first appearing benevolent, the realtor eventually double-crosses our heroes and snatches the house for himself, throwing Jimmie and Monty’s belongings outside. In his calculus though he was merciful; he could have trashed it all.
More devastating than the eviction is the at first understated bomb that Monty receives — a deed of trust for the home dating all the way back to 1857. Intriguingly, 1857 is the same year the Dred Scott decision ruled that blacks were not citizens.
A slow burn for much of the way, the Last Black Man in San Francisco really picks up steam in the wake of this revelation, streamlining what it wants to say, all the while complicating basic ideas of history and mythmaking. Some of this is illustrated through Monty’s play, put on in the attic of their Victorian home and attended by family and friends. One last hurrah in the home.
Technically, Jimmie lied. But Jimmie’s father also lied. And a lot of the “lie” was rooted in self-deception and self-preservation. They told the story so much they began to believe it.
There’s also truth. While Jimmie’s family did not build that house in 1857 — the same year that the slavery cause delivered a big blow to the anti-slavery one — they owned the residence for a time, when the descendants of slaves bravely came west and made Fillmore sanctuary. That is no small feat and is something that can never be taken away.
I recall a twitter thread by Ta-Nehisi Coates a few years ago, where he meditates on the idea that the marginalized are forced to see things squarely and honestly, while those in power can afford to have myths and still be taken seriously. Discovering that even the psychic cards are stacked against us, at least people of color have this putatively righteous and virtuous consolation.
But while power matters, all humans tell stories, make myths, and even self-delude. You do it even if you cannot afford to. Maybe you do it precisely because you can’t afford to. That’s what you do to stay sane, have a sense of pride, and survive another day. You do what the newspaperman in John Ford’s masterpiece “Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” proclaims: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” To be sure, this might not be the only thing you print. But it’s part of it, and in that legend contains a vital truth.