Within these walls: Belonging, change and ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ is currently playing at FilmScene in Iowa City. — video still

About an hour into Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, one of the few white actors in the film wanders into the frame. He is an aging man with long grey hair, wearing the type of fedora which could be called rakish. He is otherwise completely nude.

The viewer is made to understand his sartorial status in terms not at all uncertain. He carefully puts down a diaper-looking cloth to protect himself from the filth of the bus stop; sits down; inquires of the main character sitting surprised on the bench next to him how long he has been waiting; and proceeds to curse the state of bus service in their shared home city of San Francisco.

It is a scene meant to convey the present-day wildness of San Francisco, the city’s free-spirited history (as well as its hospitable climate) and — at least implicitly — the fact that the black underclass wakes up to some crazy stuff every damn day. Talbot’s film — his first — is a collaboration between the director and his friend/scriptwriter/main character Jimmie Fails, who tells a story at least partly autobiographical about changes to the city of San Francisco and the struggles that members of its lower classes face as they adapt.

Jimmie is an underemployed skateboarder who stays with his close friend Montgomery, an aspiring playwright played by Jonathan Majors, piled into a cramped walk-up owned by Mont’s blind grandfather, played by Danny Glover. They watch old movies indoors, during which Mont describes the onscreen action to his grandfather, while the shouts of homeboys from the neighborhood act as a chorus outside. This atmosphere is punctuated by the occasional gunfire.

The film’s main narrative is about adaptation, told though the history of a majestic old house that was ostensibly built by Fails’ grandfather and subsequently lost by the family to the economic vicissitudes of the neighborhood and the instability of Fails’ parents. Jimmie and Mont visit the house frequently, fight with its current owners over their presence there and their failure to keep up the building, paint and restore — unasked and uninvited — many of the architectural details and, for a good part of the film, actually squat there after the “legitimate” owners themselves lose the house during an inheritance dispute.

The house becomes an obsession for Jimmie as part of his family history and personal identity. The offscreen Jimmie Fails lived some part of this struggle personally, growing up in historic-but-declining neighborhoods as well as housing projects in the city throughout his youth. More generally, though, Fails’ story is about the loss of belonging, stability, family and the city of his childhood — in short, home.

San Francisco, maybe more than any other U.S. city, reflects an emphasis on change, impermanence and restless torpor — from vibrant port town, to ethnic battleground during Japanese internment, to ground-zero of the Haight-Ashbury social revolution, to 1-percent-driven tech town in more recent decades. Even the baseball stadium has changed names four times since it was built in 2001. What to do with this information, if you are a lower-working-class African American with deep family roots in the city and relatives that live in cars, is what Talbot is interested in exploring.

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails. — video still

Even in service to such a goal, “Jimmie Fails” would be a name so convenient for the main character that it would make even the ever-hopeful Sundance attendees roll their eyes under their Carezza ski-wear. (Last Black Man… was in fact heavily decorated at this past year’s festival in Park City.) The use of the actor’s actual name, though, provides a twist of circumstance that sort of reflects core themes of this film: Nothing is really what it seems; reality is always weirder and more uncomfortable; and if you are a member of the underclass and not a leftover hippie, then you have to deal with it, and this task will be hard.

Talbot’s San Francisco reminds us a lot of Spike Lee’s Brooklyn — a character in the film to be sure, but one that all the human characters spend a lot of time trying desperately to transcend, despite an innate knowledge that to do so would be to kill part of who they are.

Talbot and Fails are not interested in sending any definitive political message in this film. The Last Black Man in San Francisco harbors virtually no overt blame of tech companies, real estate interests, gentrifiers or white people in general, other than some gentle fun made of their desperate longing not to seem like racists and their choices in interior design. Talbot and Fails instead spend a lot of time emphasizing the texture of African American life in San Francisco — relationships, family and history — not in the epic terms of Steve McQueen or Nate Parker, but in smaller, more intimate scenes in which loyalties and determination are perhaps tested even more strenuously.

Appropriate to this emphasis, all the acting here is good. Rob Morgan is great as Jimmie’s estranged father, as is as Tichina Arnold as the aunt who has presciently stored much of the furniture from the old house for Jimmie to reclaim. A late career Glover continues to impress as Mont’s grandfather (and reminds us he still looks real good in a turtleneck).

Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors and Danny Glover in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.’ — video still

As we hurdle relentlessly toward yet another contentious election season, this movie gives us something of a reminder that, no matter our background or social status, longing for the irrecoverable past is a strong emotion for Americans. Jello Biafra, after all, makes a sly cameo here as a Segway-riding tour guide who takes a group of white tourists from explaining the San Francisco architectural history of the 1850s to viewing the apartment complex where Patty Hearst was held by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Talbot and Fails are probably not interested in any campaign to make San Francisco great again, but they do seem interested in exploring how best to let it go. In a great scene near the movie’s end, Jimmie’s aunt Wanda perhaps sums it up best when describing the loss of the family home. She says quite simply, “It was ours, then it wasn’t. Then we spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves that is still is.”

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is currently playing at FilmScene.

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