The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

It’s got to be difficult to make a concise, dramatic film about gentrification; it’s such a slow, gradual process that’s inflicted on modern cities in subtle, disorganized ways. The Last Black Man in San Francisco approaches the surreal experience of being gradually priced out of your city by millionaire yuppies in a way I’d never expect, but now seems almost obvious. Debut filmmaker Joe Talbot (along with his star, cowriter, and longtime friend Jimmie Fails) filters anger & anxiety over housing inequality through the classic stage play Existentialism of touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The film’s pair of dazed & displaced buddies (Fails & Jonathan Majors) haunt a city they’re no longer racially or financially welcome in, like ghosts stuck between planes of existence. Whether waiting for a bus, waiting for an eviction, or waiting for a miracle that’ll allow them to wait out San Francisco’s gentrification overhaul unscathed, they seem to be stuck in a classically Existential crisis of lapse in meaning & purpose. The movie leans into that eerily surreal sense of being dislodged from real life by allowing absurdist chaos to occasionally invade what is essentially a plotless hangout otherwise. It also makes its tonal connection to stage-play philosophy as explicit as possible – indulging in plenty “All the world’s a stage” & play-within-a-play narratives to drive the point home. It’s wild, beautiful, harrowing stuff doled out a weirdly calming, subdued pace – a perfect formal approach to an incorporeal topic that’s near-impossible to contain in a single picture.

Jimmie Fails stars as “Jimmie Fails,” a listless skateboarder who struggles to overcome a youth spent in group homes because of his parents’ addictions by reclaiming his San Franciscan childhood house in what is now a millionaire’s neighborhood. This starts with trespassing to repair the home with minor cosmetic upkeeps while it’s occupied by a gentrifying white couple who throw croissants at him and threaten to call the cops. It escalates when even those NPR yuppies are exiled from the skyrocketing-value property and Jimmie decides to squat in his nostalgic dream home with his best friend, a neurodivergent playwright played by Majors. Although they’re technically breaking the law by trespassing on the property, they act as caretakers for its minor upkeeps & repairs – showing more careful attention to its needs than they believe the privileged elite who can legally afford to live there would. Whether traveling to San Francisco from Oakland or palling around in their gorgeous inner-city squat, they spend much of the movie waiting for something to happen, existing in a temporal limbo. Busses, eviction notices, and confrontations with the property’s “rightful” owners all arrive later than they should, resulting in a bizarre overabundance of unstructured time. Jimmie’s playwright bestie fills a lot of that time by interpreting the solemn absurdity of their plight through the lens of a stage drama. The soapbox preacher who shouts indecipherable calls-to-arms by the Bay is the omniscient narrator; the shit-talkers on the sidewalk are the Greek chorus; and we, of course, are the perplexed audience.

Like all abstracted, philosophically-minded theatre, what makes The Last Black Man in San Francisco special can’t be summed up by the merits of its more pedestrian elements like plot or character development. This is a very patient film that casually searches for beauty, terror, and humor in the absurd. Somber jazz scores beautiful slow-motion portraits of local weirdos and their invading yuppie evictors with the gliding motion of skateboard cinematography. Mutated fish & hazmat suited government workers hint at a near-future dystopia of a polluted planet only the ultra-wealthy can afford to survive. Construction sites for land-gobbling condos are filmed with the horrific ambiance of Dracula’s lair, while traditional San Franciscan homes are framed like exquisite cathedrals. The movie is excitingly playful in how it depicts the horrors of gentrification displacing the very people who made the city enticing to outsiders in the first place – hurling GoPros through the air by The Bay and distorting California counterculture royalty like Jello Biafra & Joni Mitchel until they’re no longer recognizable. It laughs while coughing up blood and desperately grasping at a disappearing way of life, refusing to move on until it is gone entirely. It’s a shaggy, sprawling drama that admittedly loses a lot of its initial energy as the walls close in on its priced-out-of-existence besties. Still, it perfectly captures what it feels like to love a place so much you’re willing to hang out long past when the party is over, just to enjoy every possible minute there before it is demolished. It’s a quietly surreal, classically Existential film that can only cope with the helplessness of displacement by having a solemn laugh at the situation’s absurdity.

-Brandon Ledet

4 thoughts on “The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

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