Friday, June 7, 2019

'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' Is Home

Home is where you left your heart

As a San Francisco native who has never lived anywhere else I'm not going to pretend I can give a purely objective review of The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film that moved me more than any other film set in the City ever has.

Before I saw it, I had a broad understanding of its plot and themes (gentrification; displacement; the City's shrinking minority population), and as I got off the shuttle from my tech job to attend the premiere (yes, I am not immune to the irony), I couldn't help but wonder, as I sometimes do these days, if I was part of the problem. Do I get a pass because I've lived here my whole life? Does it matter that my (inconsistent) career in tech is one of the only reasons I've been able to stay here? Does that fact that I will always live with the fear of possible eviction absolve me from any blame for the City's gentrification?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco didn't give me any clear answers (even if the closest thing to a villain the movie has is a white San Francisco native), and I was actually thankful for that. It's a plus that it cleverly avoids casting any outright dispersions against any particular group, while also slyly acknowledging the City's extended history of displacement.

Debut director Joe Talbot co-wrote the script with Rob Richert, from a story by Jimmie Fails, who also stars as....Jimmie Fails. Jimmie, who works in a nursing home, shares a room with his best friend, artist and aspiring playwright Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), in a house owned by Montgomery's blind grandfather, Allen (Danny Glover). Many of their evenings are spent watching old noir movies together with Montgomery describing the action to his grandpa.

But Jimmie's passion centers on an old Victorian in the heart of the Fillmore. The house used to be his family home, with the story passed down that it was built by Jimmie's grandfather in the 1940's after he had come to San Francisco to work in the shipyards. He didn't want to take over one of the many Victorians that were abandoned in the neighborhood after its Japanese residents were forced into camps during the war, so he instead painstakingly recreated a Victorian mansion, right up to the roof's corner witch's hat. (The house seen in the film is actually located in the Mission on South Van Ness, and has a pretty interesting history of its own.)

While Jimmie's family lost the house years before, he still longs for it, and sneaks onto the property to repaint, garden, and make the minor repairs the current (white) owners don't want to make (and certainly don't appreciate him making). But when those owners, not immune to displacement themselves, are forced out, Jimmie reclaims the house, and works on making it home again.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco certainly wasn't what I was expecting, which was perhaps something closer to Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You; something broader, and taking aim at obvious targets. Instead, it more closely resembles the lyrical work of Barry Jenkins, who also tackled being black in a changing San Francisco in 2008's Medicine for Melancholy. It's a movie that lives and breathes San Francisco, featuring local actors and characters like the aforementioned Danny Glover, as well as Jamal Trulove, Jello Biafra, and a naked Castro street dude.

It's also gorgeously shot, with breathtaking sequences that pan across neighborhoods that will be familiar to some, and wholly new to others, particularly in an opening sequence that took my breath away, and is a sole reason to watch the movie more than once. Paired with Emile Mosseri's haunting soundtrack, scene after scene becomes straight up poetry.

I won't deny that seeing it at a packed Castro Theater, with a vocal San Francisco crowd that included the cast, creators, and local legends, gave me a lot of feels, perhaps more than the film alone could have mustered. This was especially true when, over the closing credits, Mike Marshall gave a surprise live performance of the song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) (which is also memorably featured in the movie). Suddenly, a song that had always made me cringe now made me cry, its hippie dippy lyrics taking on new meaning filled with nostalgia, reassurance, and hope.

Near the end of the film, Jimmie overhears two transplants on a Muni bus complaining about San Francisco, and how much they hate it. He interrupts to ask them "Yeah, but do you love it?," which stumps them a little. And then he tells them, "You don't get to hate it unless you love it."

Amen, Jimmie.

As well as being one of the best movies of the year, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic anecdote to the recent proliferation of doom and gloom profiles of a supposedly soulless San Francisco past the point of saving. Its very existence is proof that the City is still capable of wonderful things.

1 comment:

  1. wow! - this is the review that got to the heart of why this movie got to my heart - surprising and fooling and thrilling and ultimately unnerving me. Thanks!