I have been meaning to watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco since this past July. At first blush this is a story about gentrification and displacement ––– the city is San Francisco; the family who has been displaced is black; and the protagonist responsible for righting gentrification's wrongs is a young man who wears a look of complete confidence balanced thoroughly with uncertainty throughout most of the film. His name is Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails), and the central narrative of the film is semi-autobiographical. From time to time Fails revisits the house that he grew up in; which is still beautiful and pristine, though not quite pristine enough. When he drops by his old place, he touches up the house's paint and trim; makes commentary on the overall upkeep of the place's exterior and interior (by looking in through the windows); and establishes plans for what healing steps he'll carry out upon his next visit.
On occasion the house's current residents (who are white), catch Fails in the act of restoring the home. The wife throws fruits at him –––– it's unclear whether the watermelon is used as an intentional symbol –––– and threatens to call the cops. Her husband dissuades her from doing so and promises Fails that they won't call the cops, and I think, offers that Fails is welcome to come back at any time. He does not want any problems.
Fails best friend and co-conspirator is the talented, eccentric, and thoroughly well-dressed playwright Allen Montgomery ("Mont") (Jonathan Majors), who, we learn, lives with his own father (Danny Glover), who have both welcomed Fails to live with them in their home. The plot is set in motion when the watermelon-wielding homeowner losses the house due to the death of her mother, which then ties up the actual ownership of the house within a legal dispute between the woman and her sister. We never see her sister because it does not matter. That's how quickly Fails and Mont seize upon the house's newly-minted vacancy and move in, changing the utility bills over in Fails' own name, and more thoroughly applying the touch-ups to not just the house's exterior from time-to-time, but now restoring the interior as well –––– whenever they want, and however they want.
The film, like gentrification itself, moves at a crawling pace. Nothing appears to be happening at all until one looks up and notices that everything has changed and houses which were once purchased for less than four hundred thousand dollars are now being sold for over two million. However, limiting the description of this film to a film about gentrification would be a mistake.
It's a film about identity; and the pains that accompany one's inability to make plans, execute those plans, and to continue to create and mold and shape his own definition of the self around those plans. It's a film about exerting control over not just one's own house but over one's very own life, sense of being, and more specifically, worth as a man. At one point, when it's uncertain whether Fails will be able to maintain control of the house, back-to-back, we watch as Fails demands that a banker help him obtain a loan in order to purchase the house; which is then followed by Mont attempting to wrestle the license away from the real estate agent (of Manifest Real Estate –––– certainly, not an accident) who has listed the home for sale.
In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Fails and Mont move through a film that toes, oh so closely, the line between being a film that depends too heavily upon a narrative that merely preaches against the ills of gentrification, and one that actually establishes characters who move through stories which have lives and heartbeats of their own, regardless of who owns the house. For the first hour I had my doubts. By the time the credits appeared on the screen the answer was obvious. Here is a film that refuses to rush through anything, and one with an ending which is worth waiting for.
January Eighteenth, 2020