So much is tied to the concept of home. Our self-identities and self-perceptions are intricately laced between that web of house and neighborhood, affecting how we act, who we are, what we do and see. More than where the heart is, home is also where the self is. When it’s gone, a piece of us goes with it.
With the victims of gentrification the strain is even greater. Not only are homes lost, but also neighborhoods and, in many cases, cities themselves. Families who have lived on the same blocks for decades find themselves pushed out and aside, left to fend for themselves as they pick up the pieces of their families, their lives, and their identities.
This problem has been especially bad in San Francisco where, in recent years, big money entrepreneurs have moved in, driving up costs so much that old residents can’t keep up, leading to wide displacement as long term residents find themselves priced out of homes that have been in the family for decades. With the weight of the world against them, how can anyone fight back?
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a powerful, gorgeously cinematic exploration of these issues from debut filmmaker Joe Talbot. For Talbot, this has been a project five years in the making. Based in part on the experiences of his friend Jimmie Fails (who also stars in the movie and has a story credit), the film began as a proof of concept trailer that morphed into a short film that morphed into what we have today. Quietly meditative and shockingly personal, it’s easily one of the best films of 2019.
Fails stars as a loosely fictionalized version of himself, not-so-quietly pining after the house his father lost twelve years ago. He, along with his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), beset by the harshness of their lives, dream of a place they can make their own. When Jimmie’s former house is abandoned and becomes the center of a contentious estate battle, the two concoct a scheme to invoke squatter’s rights on the house in order to reclaim their past, their selves, and their lives.
Talbot’s filmmaking is imbued with a kind of whimsy that perfectly matches Jimmie and Monty’s attitudes towards reality. Both characters live in a world of artistry and imagination, worlds that many might decry as being out of touch and unrealistic. There’s certainly an unbridled audacity to their scheme but can you blame them? It’s just as easy to argue that the world as it is is equally out of touch and unrealistic. A world that attaches a $4,000,000 price tag to a house—house, not mansion—set in a crowded street can hardly be called reality based.
In effect, this is a story of two competing realities as two men attempt to navigate the city they love as it becomes a city they no longer recognize. They are guardians of the San Francisco of old, before it was overrun by tech companies and start ups. They cling to the ideals of the Bay Area’s former weirdness which existed long before the vanguards of entrepreneurship priced them out of their homes and neighborhoods. Unfortunately for them, in this cultural battle, one side has already won.
Still, there’s something inspiring about their audacity, even if their aims are premised on faulty notions. There are realities to this situation that Jimmie has thus far refused to acknowledge and that Monty slowly discovers. The truths that come to light are threatening, not just to their friendship but to their individual senses of self. In this sense, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film about having the courage to fail boldly and beautifully, reminding us that there’s a kind of poetry evinced in screwing up which can lead us to revelations about who we are and what we ultimately desire.
Talbot and Fails have made a powerful ode to the city they love as it changes into something entirely new. It’s a film about clinging to the past as you’re careened into the future, holding on to the self as it’s sent into a tailspin towards the unknown. Cinematically poetic, it alternates between riotously hilarious and emotionally poignant in the span of single scenes, showing us the inner world of characters for whom everything they know has changed irrecoverably. It is, in a word, a marvel.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now playing in select cities, with expansion to follow.