I didn't realize how deeply this movie had its hooks into me until it was too late. For the first half of the movie, I was just trying to figure it out. Then, when I thought that I finally had figured it out, I realized that it was the one that had figured me out. It creeps up on you like that. Without you knowing. I was surprised how much I connected with it, actually. It, being a movie about black men in San Francisco attempting to come to grips with things by avoiding them. I don't know what it's like to be black in San Francisco, or anywhere for that matter, but there was a familiarity about this movie that defies a certain level of understanding. Which is what great art does. It makes you feel as if you've been places you haven't. Been people you aren't. When I listen to Kendrick Lamar's 'Good Kid, Maad City', for example, it makes me feel nostalgic for South Central Los Angeles. The good parts and the bad. As if memories of growing up on the streets of Compton were somehow implanted inside my brain, Blade Runner style, so that the feelings are there, even in the absence of experience.
The Last Black Man is about Jimmie Fails, the third. Fails is obsessed with a big house in an expensive part of San Fransisco that he claims was built by his grandfather, Jimmie Fails the first. Every day, while the owners are away, he stops by and tends to the house, against their wishes. He paints the trim, he weeds the garden, he cleans the fence. Then, one day, the owners are forced to vacate the house and Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery, a struggling playwright, move in.
That plot synopsis is what the movie is about on the surface. What the movie is really about is gentrification. More specifically, it's about young, rich, white, Silicon Valley techies moving into San Francisco, paying exorbitant amounts of money for property, and thereby pushing lower and even middle class, blue collar workers out. The black community in that city has been hit the hardest, because as we know, black people in America have to work twice as hard for half as much as their white counterparts.
There was a time when Jimmie's father owned that house that his grandfather built with his own two hands, that house now valued at $4 million and change. But he lost it in the 90's and when Jimmie visits him, in one of the film's most touching and poignant scenes, we see he is now living in a tiny little closet sized apartment somewhere downtown, where he makes a living selling knockoff DVDs of old Hollywood movies to tourists.
Something a lot of people don't understand about grossly overpriced cities like San Francisco, Manhattan, Los Angeles, or Vancouver is that when you were born there, and your parents were born there, and their parents were born there, or immigrated there from somewhere else, you don't just up and leave. The city itself is like a living tapestry of your lineage. The place where your family tree is planted. It is extremely hard, after three generations, to just pull that tree up out of the ground and start again somewhere. I lived in Vancouver for a brief period and when people who's parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all live in and around Vancouver would complain about the cost of housing, they would be told to 'just move, then'. As if moving away from every familial lifeline you have is as easy as shrugging your shoulders. It's not. It's not for some of those people in Vancouver and it's not for Jimmie Fails, the third. But what do you do when the city you call your home turns its back on you and tells you, in effect, it's found someone younger, richer and whiter and doesn't want you anymore?
Jimmie Fails is only one character and this is only one story being told, but there are Jimmie Fails's all over San Francisco who are facing the same crisis, with their own stories of standing at the crossroads of capitalism and abandonment.
I won't tell you how Jimmie's story ends, because I want you seek this movie out and see for yourself. But I will tell you this: I don't think I've seen a more moving finale all year.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a true original. Beautifully shot, beautifully scored and acted. It skates comfortably from an almost arthouse expressionism, to gritty realism, to intimate family drama, sometimes all in the same sequence.
Some call it a love letter to friendship and to San Francisco. To friendship, it certainly is. To San Fran? I don't know that I'd call it a love letter. A breakup letter, maybe. But in reverse. Then again, what do I know? I've never lived there. And as Jimmie tells a couple of Silicon Valley girls complaining about the city not being as good as East L.A.: "You're not allowed to hate San Francisco, unless you've loved it first".