The rent in San Francisco is absurd. Just how bad is it? Curbed recently reported you can rent a bunkbed – not even a whole room – for $1,200 a month. My friends lived in a handsome two bedroom near Oracle Park where it cost $4,000 per month, then they had to leave when their landlord increased the rent to $6,000 per month, and that was seven years ago. Director Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is acutely aware of what these prices are doing to a vibrant city, except it is not about housing policy. It is about friendship, family, and community.
Two friends are the center of the film, and the film gently critiques their mutual need. Jimmie Falls plays a character named Jimmie Falls – this story is semi-autobiographical – and his obsession is a handsome Victorian house his family used to own. The house is in the Fillmore District, a predominantly black neighborhood, at least until it gentrified.
Now a wealthy white couple live there, and they’re annoyed with Jimmie’s insistence he improve the exterior (he figures he’ll somehow own the place eventually). Jonathan Majors brilliantly plays Montgomery, Jimmie’s friend and observer, although the pair become conspirators when they decide to squat in the house after the current owners leave over a legal dispute.
Jimmie’s connection to the house is about more than architecture, or even family. He sees himself as the torchbearer of the city’s legacy. There is a mania to what he accomplishes here, and that’s never clearer than when he speaks to realtors. Both Jimmie and the realtors crave an authentic experience, and they just disagree over what that means.
In his feature debut, Talbot has the good sense to borrow from the right people. There are shades of Malick to his style, particularly when his camera zooms through the house like an excited omnipotent narrator. Barry Jenkins is another key influence – there is careful attention to filming black bodies in a beautiful way, and Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy is like an unofficial prequel – but the strongest influence might be Michel Gondry. Montgomery is a classic Gondry hero: idiosyncratic, reserved, and passionate. He is also a playwright, and his latest work serves as the film’s climax. The story-within-a-story brilliantly weaves all the movie’s themes, and sets up a heartbreaking impasse that is the film’s true emotional core.
Like many debut films, The Last Black Man in San Francisco bursts with ideas. This kitchen sink approach serves the premise since community – or its deterioration – is an important theme. There is a street preacher character who laments the city’s loss of black people, while another character sneers at the way things used to be. Talbot listens to all these voices with patience, and a growing sense of resignation. It is interesting that he is a white director, yet the film is more of a collaboration between him and Falls. This is their film, but it is Jimmie’s story.
Toward the end of Jimmie’s story, he says to someone, “You have to love something in order to hate it.” That is a hard-earned wisdom, as Jimmie comes to find both in the pit of his heart. Who he says the line to – and why he says it – helps clarify who needs to see a film like this (this scene is also a sly reference to another indie film, but I won’t spoil the surprise). More and more people live in cities nowadays, enjoying the “cool” factor without putting much thought into what effect their urban existence has on others. The Last Black Man in San Francisco will not stop NIMBYism, but it remains an important, lyrical drama that strikes appropriate notes of anger and hope.