Is there a greater beast than gentrification; a greater erasure of time, memory, heritage? Rhetorically, the answer beckons an unequivocal “no.” In the hands of director Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays the relentless crime of community disintegration at the hands of upper-class Whites.
The film follows Jimmy Fails IV, a skateboarding black male with an overpowering affection for the Victorian home his grandfather built. The former childhood home — now owned by an elderly White couple —is oddly maintained by Jimmy. He paints the windowsill whenever previous coats chip or wear, much to the elderly couple’s chagrin. Jimmy, ostracized from a building that personifies his very being: with two absentee parents — masquerading as reverence, desperately clings to a “past in the past, [and possibly,] a past in the future.”
He’s joined by his best friend Prentice (Jonathan Majors), an eccentric playwright and sketcher who’s mercilessly bullied by local corner hustlers. Prentice talks to himself, acts out scenes, and pretends he’s a director. Majors draws a wellspring of emotional spontaneity — a vulnerability, a sadness, an energetic explosion of distress and freedom. His character is giving to a fault, narrating television shows to his blind grandpa (Danny Glover), while striving to understand and empathize with those who mean to do him the most harm.
When the mansion is vacated by the previous owners, Jimmy decides to surreptitiously reclaim the house his grandfather built by moving in. The effort is both a plea and call to action, recreating an abandoned past by the simple act of moving back to a neighborhood.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco actualizes a heritage where owning a home was a badge of honor, especially for African-American service men returning home from the war without the same loans offered to their White counterparts. The very idea of a black man building his very own home spits in the face of redlining practices that overtly dominated the 50s and 60s. This is echoed byt the out-of-time nature of the protagonists – Jimmy and Prentice are themselves dressed in the past, costumed as though they’re from the 60s with flannels and corduroy blazers. The film’s nostalgia is furthered by the use of hippie-era soul and folk that often evoke San Francisco’s cultural heyday.
Talbot employs beautiful long tracking shots of Jimmy skateboarding through his neighborhood and in-and-out of the San Franciscan streets. As Prentice runs alongside of him, Jimmy rides past the corner preacher, the local hustlers, the polluted bay, the overflow of life on his streets. The screen explodes with breath-taking natural lighting, an uplifting and operatic score, and a pallet of color within the neighborhood that evokes a connectivity–a community.
With many sumptuous sequences, unfortunately there are several that weigh down the film. The inclusion of Jimmy’s mother and the corner hustlers could have easily been reduced or entirely eliminated. While the film examines cultural erasure, there’s a third eye examining the environmental. That eco-critical component is never fully realized past the rousing opening sequence of Jimmy and Prentice skateboarding. The earnestness of the film tumbles out of control, making for an overwrought and draining experience that too often relies on harangues.
Still, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is ambitious. Some of the elements work, others don’t. But when they do materialize, the previous “failures” evaporate into a jubilant and operatic marvel.