The Last Black Man in San Francisco speaks to a level of devastation that’s been discussed before, that of how racism, gentrification, and class converge over generations to leave entire neighborhoods left behind in the mad rush for profit. In the world of Jimmie Fails (co-writer Jimmie Fails, playing a fictionalized version of himself), a little girl skips happily down the street while men in hazard suits walk past to clean up the water.
Such an approach may bring Blindspotting to mind, a film which also revolved around gentrification and displacement. Where Blindspotting embraced the kind of pacing that was brisk when it wasn’t fast, as well as a comedic tone that was deeply emblematic of its stylish Oakland setting, The Last Black Man in San Francisco puts any comparisons to rest pretty quickly.
This San Francisco is a world away from Oakland cool, despite their relative geographic closeness. The Last Black Man is certainly stylistic, but in a detached way, with the slower pace and retro edge of a community and a protagonist that feels lost in a city which seems intent on ignoring their struggles. Jimmie has one thing to hold onto though: a beautiful house in the heart of San Francisco that was built by his grandfather after he returned from World War II. After his parents lost the house, the family seemed to have fractured as well, with his father now homeless and his mother estranged from them both.
Jimmie also regularly stops by the house to check up on it, periodically painting and doing repairs with his friend Montgomery, or Mont (Jonathan Majors), much to the annoyance of the older white couple who now resides there. When the couple departs, ironically because of an estate dispute, Jimmie and Mont decide to move in as squatters in an effort to reclaim it. Jimmie and Mont are anomalies in this gentrified San Francisco, and the home that is Jimmie’s obsession is truly a thing of beauty, exemplifying just how out of reach the life it represents has become to so many of Jimmie’s friends, family, and his neighborhood.
The languid pace of The Last Black Man in San Francisco couldn’t be mistaken for apathy, but as it heads toward its emotional reveal, even characters as vibrant as Jimmie and Mont risk becoming ideas in the service of story, rather than recognizable people who just happen to be wrestling with the issues the film most wants us to engage with, not just consider. The Last Black Man is as much a tribute to a city that provokes love and despair in equal quantities, that can’t seem to help trying to crush the very people who helped make it what it was, and who still cry to the heavens that this is their home regardless.
The vision the film offers is poetic, but it’s laced with a realism which makes us fully aware that Jimmie’s rebellion won’t result in a fairy tale ending that will somehow knit his family back together. The conclusion will probably be a genuine shock to most, a devastating indictment of an America that claims to offer a reward for hard work, yet often condemns those who are born with the most odds to overcome. In such a world, there are no miracles, but maybe the fact that there’s still hope just might be a miracle in itself.