Premise: A young man searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.
A young black girl stares up at a man in a hazmat suit while a street preacher rants and raves about the contaminated water poisoning the residents. This is the introduction we get to Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Monty’s (Jonathan Majors) version of San Francisco in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”; far from the trolleys, five-star restaurants and tech headquarters of the city. The Golden Gate Bridge is off in the distance, but it’s far enough away that you may forget that it exists. Reality is certainly heightened here, but not so much to seem unbelievable. The film is loosely based on the true-life story of Jimmie Fails, who shares a story credit with first-time director and his childhood friend, Joe Talbot. Jimmie and Monty- both young, under-employed black men with dreams of bigger and better things- share a crowded bedroom in Monty’s blind grandfather’s house on the outskirts of the city. At night, when Jimmie isn’t working at a nursing home, the three watch old movies as Monty lovingly describes the action. On occasion, the two skate into the city to look after and fix up an old Victorian home in the Mission district that’s currently owned by an elderly white couple. Why is Jimmie so immersed in the upkeep of the home? He explains early on (to a Segway tour full of white people, of course) that the house was designed and built by his grandfather with his own two hands after World War II. Soon, the couple moves out and the home is abandoned, so Jimmie and Monty take over and renovate as they believe it should be, preserving as many details as Jimmie’s grandfather intended.
In between all of this, Talbot introduces a wide array of colorful but realistic characters that feature prominently in Jimmie and Monty’s lives, including Mike Epps’ Bobby. He may currently live in his car, but the Christmas lights he’s jerry-rigged around it shine just as bright as the stars in the sky. He may be the happiest character in the film. There’s also a group of street hustlers that regularly hang out outside Monty’s grandfather’s home. It could be easy to classify them as a Greek chorus of sorts. But rather than simply commenting on and observing the action of the film, they’re a way for Monty to realize how much he truly doesn’t fit in with what society tells him he should be as a young, lower-class black man. Sometimes Monty watches the group from a distance, but when he tries to imitate them later in the mirror, he comes off as a hollow imitation. Monty is at once both a supremely confident yet insecure man; he knows exactly who he is and who he wants to be, but he has no idea how to fit in with those around him. We already know Jimmie’s greatest aspirations: he simply wants to absorb every bit of his family’s history, holding on to what many black men like him never even get a chance to have. Jimmie’s optimism throughout is clearly matched by his resilience. Whether it’s his parents, the house’s previous owner, an increasingly gentrified city, the bank, or any number of outside factors, Jimmie continues to fight for the home he feels he belongs in. Jimmie needs to find a place where he physically belongs, but Monty’s more in search of a social belonging.
As the two live in the home, it becomes clear- to everyone but them- that their time is limited. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a film that shows how difficult it can be to live out the American dream in 2019, to find a place where we truly belong and fit in. Jimmie’s father- played by Rob Morgan and introduced as enlisting Jimmie to package up bootleg DVDs into plastic sleeves – believes Jimmie is simply playing pretend by moving into and fixing up a house he doesn’t own. But is he telling Jimmie something that Jimmie doesn’t want to believe, or projecting his own experiences as someone that’s been kicked around one too many times? Before the pair are inevitably kicked out of their house, Monty puts on a play in the attic (something he’s been working towards off and on throughout the film), and invites almost all of the people they’ve shared experiences with. I fear that the film’s emotional climax will lose some people, coming off as a convoluted way for the characters to confront some hard truths about themselves. Or, more specifically, the climax serving as a way for Monty to dispel a hard truth to Jimmie about the home he loves. But the scene makes more sense when we realize that Monty knows no better way to express himself to Jimmie. That the scene (and the entire film, for that matter) is expertly acted by Fails and Majors makes it land much easier as well.
Talbot manages to tell both a deeply personal yet universal story, as the best movies do. Are we defined by our family history? Is our self-worth dependent on the worth of our primary residence? “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” has no clear antagonist- the closest it comes is a smarmy real estate agent played by Finn Wittrock- and the film is all the better for it. This is not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the most lovingly crafted. Yes, a home may be pristine and monetarily valuable, but without the love and soul to put into it by someone that truly knows it, what is there to distinguish it from its neighbors?