A dreamy urban fairy tale about the importance of place.
In the opening scenes of Joe Talbot’s enchanting debut feature The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the two protagonists share a skateboard ride through that fantastical California city. Their motion is smooth and dreamlike, as if the street were a river and the skateboard a boat from which they view the flora and fauna of the city’s banks. The theme of being unmoored and adrift winds throughout the film and reflects the experience of its protagonist and, by extension, all members of communities displaced by gentrification. There is an inherent need that all people have for a sense of place, of belonging, and of history. A need that, if it goes unfulfilled, can eat away at not just an individual but a community and an entire city. In The Last Black Man, Talbot has crafted a modern-day Odyssey – one man’s near-mythical struggle to restore his sense of place.
Co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert with a story credit by Talbot’s childhood friend and star Jimmy Fails, the story is loosely based on Fails’ own life. Jimmy is a young black man who has been pushed, like so many other people of color in San Francisco, to the outskirts of that great city; to a poisonous superfund site where smoke fills the air and the fish have three eyes. Jimmy is crashing with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors in a star-making role), a sensitive, awkward playwright, and Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Their house is not Jimmy’s house, however, and his days are consumed by an obsession to return to the grand Victorian home in the city that he was forced to leave as a child. So strong is Jimmy’s love of the home that he and Mont undergo the long trek to the city every day to make unsolicited repairs – much to the chagrin of the current white owners. When the house is suddenly abandoned, Jimmy and Mont attempt to reclaim the property for themselves.
As Jimmy and Mont struggle to retake their castle, the journey of the two men unfolds like an urban fairy tale. Stunningly photographed in dreamy soft-focus by Adam Newport-Berra, San Francisco’s picturesque and peculiar neighborhoods resemble a metropolitan fantasy land. The heroes flee a toxic land of death and malaise and encounter strange creatures on their quest – angel-voiced buskers, tech bros, crack heads, and nudists.
There are even sirens, of a sort, in the form of a group of young black men who stand on the corner “talking shit”. They ruthlessly taunt Jimmy, enticing him to respond to their challenges and distract him from his cause. These men represent what happens when individuals lose a sense of place. They stand on the street and trade insults simply because they have nowhere else to go. When Mont invites one of the men to the house, a peace settles over his face as he gazes up at the high, arched ceiling that shelters him – so different from the open sky above the street corner where poison and bullets invade the air.
While the impact of gentrification has long been a bitter issue in San Francisco, The Last Black Man is not an angry film. Gentrification is represented as a foregone conclusion, the characters never even try to fight against it. Instead the film conveys how the places we live affect the people we are, and how the loss of place can have ramifications not just for the individual, but for entire communities. The film offers no solutions, it merely asks you to live in Jimmy’s shoes, to see a creaky old house as a castle, an ever-changing tech hub as a land of enchantment. To bob along with him as he drifts through a city he both loves and hates in search of a place to set anchor.