San Francisco has always been a city with a short memory. The fog rolls over the hills during the late afternoon, wiping the slate clean as it sweeps over the bay. The Earth shakes every so often, dislodging anything that got too comfortable where it was. The Japanese used to be the most visible immigrant population until the U.S. government decided to forcibly relocate them to internment camps that were scattered across the western seaboard. “Vertigo” is set there, because no American city is more attuned to the fear of rotational movement. So is Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a horror movie about a health inspector who slowly discovers that he’s being surrounded by alien duplicates. Today, the city is home to a diverse cross-section of American people, many of whom are being forced to move elsewhere due to one of the worst housing crises in the country.
Jimmie H. Fails IV — a character named for the first-time actor who plays and inspired him — is one of those people. He spent the best part of his childhood in a vast and creaky Victorian house in the Mission — the kind of place with gold trimmings on the window frames, a Witch’s Hat on the roof, and a mess of family history in every mote of dust.
The story goes that his grandfather, the self-proclaimed “first black man in San Francisco,” built the place with his own two hands in 1946. But the Fails couldn’t afford to keep it; Jimmie, like so many people in the city, was forced to move on before he was ready. He spent time in a group home before resettling somewhere even less desirable, but he doesn’t like to talk about that.
The latest film in a proud tradition of Bay Area gentrification narratives that includes Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” and last year’s “Blindspotting,” Joe Talbot’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly bittersweet debut feature tells Jimmie’s story with the perspective of someone who lived it — and the pain of someone who can’t bear to leave their hometown behind. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is pooled together from several different truths, as it borrows as much from Jimmie’s own life as it does from his friendship with his co-writer and director. The movie they’ve made together is both a spiteful love letter and a hilarious surrender; it’s as much a requiem for the things we lose as it is a pointed reminder that nothing is really ours to keep. One member of the film’s memorable cast puts it best: “You see, Jimmie, you never really own shit!”
Shot in a woozy, unreal, and dryly comedic style that splits the difference between Spike Jonze and Spike Lee, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” slows the world down just enough for you to feel it changing. The area is poisoned. Men in Hazmat suits walk by, only cleaning water that’s been dirty for half a century now that the people who’ve drunk it all their lives are leaving. Jimmie and his eccentric best friend Montgomery (a flat-out phenomenal Jonathan Majors) watch an ex-con street preacher do his thing as they wait for the bus.
“Fight for your land!” The man yells. “Fight for your home! Fight for—” Jimmie cuts him off. Fuck the bus, he and Mont can share a skateboard (cue the first of several adorably off-kilter montages between two characters who you instantly love and believe as best friends).
And just like that, Talbot (who’s white) starts to subvert a rich history of stories about people who scratch and claw to win back where they came from. Jimmie refuses to accept the truth at first, but this isn’t a fight that two marginally employed black guys with no property to their names are ever going to win. Especially not when all they’ve got between them is a narrow room in the house where Mont’s dad lives. And especially not when the Fails’ old family mansion is now valued at $4 million.
But Jimmie, a very nice guy who’s maybe a bit too sentimental for his own good, isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. In fact, he still drags Mont to that Victorian stunner every so often so that he can repaint the fixtures, trim the bushes, and generally maintain the place for the older white couple who take it for granted. And when the current residents clear out due to a death in the family, it isn’t long before Jimmie busts down the door and moves all of his old stuff back inside. There’s no place like home, and the beauty of Fails’ patient and quiet performance is in how he always seems to be sussing that out in real time. The vulnerability and resolve he brings to his onscreen alter-ego makes it so rewarding to guess at the difference between what Jimmie doesn’t know and what he’s just trying to deny.
The truth is that Jimmie just wants to have something that belongs to him. If not a house, then at least an identity. That’s probably why he and Mont wear the same things every day like they’re characters on “The Simpsons” (for Jimmie it’s a red flannel button-down and a black cap; for Mont it’s a faded suit that’s accented by the pencil he always wears behind his ear). The loud cluster of hard-ass local toughs are the same way, their outfits as permanent as their face tattoos. Everyone wants a clear role to play, something that no one can take away from them no matter how expensive San Francisco gets.
A tense scene abruptly turns hilarious when Mont defuses a heated fight by stepping into the middle of it and offering everyone notes as if they were characters in a play. And in one of the film’s many surreal flourishes, Jimmie is joined at a bus stop by a completely naked white guy who sits down as if it’s the most normal thing in the world; that’s what happens to someone who’s lost his look but still refuses to leave. It’s a pitiable sight (though it’s worth noting that this is the kind of movie that loves all of its characters, even the ones who no one likes).
Mont is less susceptible to these things. His eyes are a bit more open, if only because he’s often asked to narrate old movies for his blind father (Danny Glover). He’s an artist who sketches the neighborhood scene whenever he’s not cooking up his next play, as if he recognizes that this is the only way to stop time and freeze everything in place. That awareness bleeds into Emile Mosseri’s gorgeous woodwind score, which sounds like a 21st century riff on the iconic music that Philip Glass wrote for “Koyaanisqatsi” — the contemporary feel isn’t owed to any digital-age instrumentation, but rather just how exhausted the notes are. Glass’ score reveled in the speed of change in the modern world, while Mosseri’s is more of a requiem for it.
It’s only a matter of time before Jimmie is forced to confront the facts and deal with the reality of his situation, and it’s here — if anywhere — that “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” falters. The story comes to a head with a swing-for-the-fences finale that collects all of the film’s characters in one place and weaponizes two hours of well-handed quirk into a violent collision that’s a bit too cute for its own good. Talbot has a gift for making twee material feel true, but his grip weakens during the pivotal home stretch of his debut, and as a result the ending doesn’t land with the emotion it deserves.
On the other hand, Talbot’s third-act gambit doesn’t lose points for its didacticism. Yes, Mont literally shouts the movie’s themes at the audience, but sometimes that’s what it takes to for certain things to get through to the people who most need to hear them. Everyone deserves the chance to see beyond the stories they’re born into, but not everyone has the strength to take that chance on their own. Home is always much easier to find when it’s an actual place. And yet, “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” is a special film for how bravely it steels its characters for a future where most of us can only belong to each other. It’s a film that’s as sad for its city as it is for all of the people who can no longer afford to live there. San Francisco may have a short memory, but it’s just produced another movie that will be hard to forget.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.