Directed by: Joe Talbot
Premise: A young African American man (Jimmie Fails) and his friend (Jonathan Majors) begin squatting in his childhood home. He attempts to reclaim the house while reconsidering his relationship with his family.
What Works: The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a story about home and identity and the ways in which those concepts are linked. Jimmie, the protagonist played by Jimmie Fails, is obsessed with his childhood home in part because the house had been in his family for several generations and he is quick to tell anyone who will listen about how his grandfather built the house. It’s more than just a matter of family pride; the house is an heirloom but one that has been lost due to his father’s financial mismanagement and the forces gentrification which have pushed people of color out of these neighborhoods. Jimmie spends his days with his friend Monti, an aspiring playwright played by Jonathan Majors. Monti supports Jimmie in his bid to take back the house and the two of them move in as squatters when the current tenants vacate the building. Actors Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are a terrific pair and they are frequently very funny. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about the complexity of identity and especially African American identity. These characters are displaced by a housing market that makes them vagrants and strangers in their hometown. That becomes evident not only in Jimmie and Monti’s lives but also among the supporting characters. Jimmie and Monti regularly pass by a group of guys who hang out on the street, among them Kofi played by Jamal Trulove. Kofi and Monti have a complicated relationship and Kofi is friendly with Monti in private but disowns him in public. This comes across more than just two-faced on Kofi’s part. The young men’s identities are split between who they are privately and how they present themselves publically. The Last Black Man in San Francisco explores how home, whatever that might mean, and the physical locations we grow up in shape how we see ourselves. But the movie is also about the limits of those spaces to determine who we are and the necessity of breaking free from those preconceptions. This cerebral material is presented with a great deal of humor and empathy and the moviemakers tell a compelling story with vivid characters.
What Doesn’t: The Last Black Man in San Francisco concludes without really resolving Jimmie’s housing problem. He begins the movie in search of a home and the story puts Jimmie through a process of letting go of his past and seeing new possibilities. It is an interesting transformation of a character realizing that he doesn’t really want the object of his desire. But Jimmie’s future remains vague. That ambiguity is part of the point of the movie and as a story about gentrification The Last Black Man in San Francisco is unable to give us a conclusion because the issue itself is in flux. But the end of the movie is nevertheless inconclusive.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes.
Bottom Line: The Last Black Man in San Francisco mixes intellectual questions about identity and locality with engaging human drama. This movie offers a lot to think about regarding race and gentrification but the film’s dramatization of breaking away transcends those issues.
Episode: #783 (January 5, 2020)