By Benjamin Akpan
As teenagers, best friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails thought of making a movie based on their personal experiences, particularly that of Fails’. In 2015, they began to actively raise funds to produce their film. Four years later, following a successful kickstarter, an acclaimed short film, as well as backing from production companies A24 and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, they finally brought their film The Last Black Man in San Francisco to life. The film is a slow burning and poetic, yet earnest love story to the city they both grew up in, which they have watched slowly disintegrate before their very eyes as a result of gentrification.
In the film, director Joe Talbot takes the popular saying ‘home is where your heart is’ and flips it on its head. For protagonist Jimmie (played by the real Jimmie Fails), his heart is where his home is, and this home is an old Victorian home which he swears was built by his grandfather with his bare hands in 1946. However, a six-year-old Fails and his family are forced out due to rising housing rates. Jimmie spends a lot of his time thinking of and caring for the house – much to the chagrin of its current White owners. So when an estate dispute forces the current owners out, Jimmie does what he’s planned to do since the day he left: he moves back in. And so begins his journey into battling the catastrophic effects of the gradual gentrification of his city, amidst his own self-exploration.
The film is a technical achievement, clearly proving that Talbot has gained thorough mastery over his craft. He displays a level of proficiency that many would kill to have. His direction is supported by expert editing and pacing, making the film’s two-hour run-time fly by like a breeze.
Its cinematography is equally outstanding, juggling realism and romanticism in its authentic depiction of San Francisco; portraying it exactly the way Jimmie sees it – beautiful, in spite of its flaws, many as they may be. This quality is further enhanced by Emille Mosseri’s stunning score; an ethereal burst of woodwinds that feels historically rich, yet transcendent of the time it represents.
© IMDB | The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) Official Trailer
Still, the root of this film are its characters, and the actors behind them. For his debut offering, Fails puts on a show that shines with a naturalness found only in seasoned performers. But the standout is Jonathan Majors as Jimmie’s offbeat best-friend and comrade Montgomery. In an emotional scene, that very well happens to be the movie’s most powerful and poignant, Majors gives a loud and unrestrained performance that would make all the awards rounds in a perfect world. As Montgomery, Majors stands to serve as Jimmie’s voice of reason, as well as the diving board from which he bounces off straight into catharsis.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is far greater than just a story about gentrification, dealing with the deeper sociological and psychological topic of place attachment – an underlying issue affecting all displaced by gentrification. The film highlights the emotional bond formed between a person and a place, proficiently capturing the emotional process of slowly coming to the realization that we do not really own the places within which we form deep, meaningful memories and experiences. In his fight to keep this house, Jimmie is fighting to retain his self-identity, or whatever is left of it. When critically considered, the house is nothing but a metaphor for Jimmie’s identity, which the new invaders are slowly wringing out of him.
Nevertheless, The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t some hateful message to San Francisco or the corporations gentrifying it. On the contrary, it’s an empathetic look at a city Talbot and Fails genuinely love. Amidst everything, they are hopeful: no one is (or should be) defined by the city they were brought up in, or the home in which they grew. The film’s greatest message is blatantly stated by one of the characters in the latter part of the film – we need courage to see beyond the boxes we’ve been put in. Maybe then, just then, might we be able to separate home from heart. We all long for a time where home is no longer a place; a time in which we can find a home within our very selves. It is this universal relatability that eventually catapults the film from ‘good’, to a staggering victory.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now showing in select theatres.