There aren’t enough houses to go around in San Francisco. This is certainly true today, with the city’s sky-high rents fueling a steady stream of hair-raising headlines, an intractable homelessness crisis, and countless eulogies for a lost San Francisco. It’s indisputable that the city used to be more hospitable to the middle and working classes, as well as to artists and writers and seekers of all kinds. But there’s something ugly, too, about the current nostalgia that papers over the city’s many historical injustices, especially against racial minorities. The new film The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a love note to the city, but one that’s honest enough to admit that, even in eras that seemed more welcoming, there were always people who bristled when others dared to call it home.
Shot in a warm but elegiac sunset-orange, Last Black Man garnered first-time feature helmer Joe Talbot this year’s directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. Its showy visuals, tale of unsustainable male friendship, and concern with racism and hyper-gentrification in the Bay Area may remind some of 2018’s Blindspotting. But the films that Last Black Man recalled for me were those of Barry Jenkins, who tackled themes of black extinction in San Francisco in his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, more than 10 years ago—and whose languid romances (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) reach their wrenching intensity in part through intimate close-ups of actors looking just shy of straight into the camera. And yet, this magnificent debut often feels like something utterly new.
Last Black Man is also a love story, of a sort. The one-sided adoration at the heart of the drama is between Jimmie Fails (played by newcomer Jimmie Fails) and the periwinkle-gray Victorian mansion built by his grandfather, who is rumored to be have been the first black man in San Francisco. Though his father (Rob Morgan) lost the house—and with it, its pipe organ, stained-glass windows, wood-paneled library, and witch’s hat turret—in the ’90s, Jimmie, accompanied by his spacey wannabe-playwright friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), skateboards to the residence every day. (Ignoring the taunts about their close relationship from the other twentysomething men in their run-down neighborhood, Jimmie and Montgomery sometimes ride the former’s skateboard together, their legs moving in perfect tandem—a vision of relaxed, synchronized bliss.) Once there, Jimmie—to the consternation of the current (white) tenants, who just want to be left alone—rakes the garden, paints the windowsills, and tuts at all the maintenance projects they won’t do. But San Francisco’s cruelty, while not colorblind, doesn’t impact only people of color. Before long, the elderly occupants are evicted following a family dispute, leaving the house empty for Jimmie and Montgomery to move in.
While there’s some mild tension about whether a nosy (white) neighbor might call the cops on the duo, Last Black Man refuses to adhere to a conventional plot, even as an obtrusive score portends melodrama around every corner. Instead, we follow Jimmie as he visits his dad, his aunt (Tichina Arnold), and Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover), excavating his family history, which is intertwined with the city’s history. Screenwriters Talbot and Rob Richert, working off a story by Talbot and Fails (San Francisco natives both), revive memories of the “Harlem of the West” that the Fillmore District (traditionally the city’s black neighborhood) used to be called—then complicate the picture almost immediately by suggesting the role that Japanese internment may have played in his grandfather’s success. But the film doesn’t dwell on that possibility, and neither does Jimmie: He already knows what his family’s contributions to San Francisco are, and without them, there’d be no point in living in a city that rejects people like him so baldly.
Last Black Man is about the urgency and the pitfalls of family legends, the erasure of black history, alternate modes of masculinity, and the many cool shots you can get when you combine skateboards and slo-mo. But it’s also about so many other issues—landlord arson, subprime mortgages, environmental racism, homelessness, shootings over insults—that reflect harrowing news stories but are alluded to in such oblique fashion that the film feels both timely and timeless. Racism’s manifestations are dizzyingly legion and sometimes frustratingly diffuse. Last Black Man captures what it’s like to confront a cloud that can make you feel like you’re suffocating but that you can hardly tackle directly. That lack of tactility can translate to the viewing experience. I was initially left unmoved by the film’s emotional circumspection and elliptical conclusion but found myself in great admiration of it after a few days’ thought.
The tech industry is mostly invisible in this version of San Francisco, but we don’t need to see it to feel its effects. In its place is a lush verdancy we rarely associate with the city, along with the usual suspects: those ludicrously steep hills, the occasional naked man, and, more recently, the ubiquitous açai bowls. San Francisco may be waging war against its most vulnerable residents, but if you can enjoy its beauty, as Jimmie and Montgomery do for a magical few days, its unique picturesqueness makes it easy to love. Even when the city betrays him, Jimmie gets angry when a stranger treats it as interchangeable with any other city. He’s right: There’s no other place like it.