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The Last Black Man in San Francisco [Movie Review]

The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells the story of James “Jimmie” Fails III (Jimmie Fails) quest with his best friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) to recover and restore a home that was built by his grandfather.

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As the story goes, Jimmie’s grandfather, James Fails I, relocated from Louisiana to San Francisco and settled in the Fillmore District when the neighborhood was still predominantly Japanese. (At one point Jimmie is referred to by his full name, James Fails III and his father as James Sr., so I’ll assume his grandfather was James I and will refer to him as such at times to keep things clear.) Not wanting to take advantage of others misfortune, James I built a home of his own instead of moving into one of the homes that were vacated by the Japanese residents being relocated to internment camps.

This home is not just any house but rather a grand Victorian that plays a vital role at the center of the film. The interior features dark wood trim, an organ in the foyer, and numerous common rooms with ornamental chandeliers and light fixtures. I’ve never been to San Francisco but the home’s exterior was reminiscent of what I’ve come to associate with the city based on television and movies. The exterior features very detailed trim and adornments including what’s referred to as a witch’s hat, a tower with a cone shaped roof that adds to the grandeur of the home’s facade. Like New York brownstones and other townhomes, the house is quite narrow so it’s easy to underestimate its size from exterior shots.

Knocking about town, Jimmie and Mont stop by the old family house so Jimmie can check up on the place. The house is occupied by a middle-aged White couple and looks a bit worn on the outside. During the initial visit Jimmie is pelted with expensive baked goods and vegetables by the current owners. I understand taking pride in your family’s history but I personally wouldn’t take it upon myself to paint or water the plants of a home that’s no longer in the family.

In recent years, as the tech boom has skyrocketed real estate prices in San Francisco, much has been made of gentrification of the city. Given its focus on a particular home, The Last Black Man in San Francisco certainly touches on gentrification and housing but I thought its perspective and approach to discussing the topics were refreshing. It doesn’t simply take the stance that gentrification is bad but rather shows that there is some nuance. Owning a home is often considered part of the foundation for building wealth. But, the film shows that while we might view homes and neighborhoods as “ours”, changes in circumstances can make ownership fleeting.

The middle-aged White family that has moved into the Fails family home can be perceived as gentrifiers. Yet, Jimmie’s grandfather moved into the neighborhood during a time of turmoil and hardship for the Japanese. Likewise, Jimmie’s family lost the home due to his parents drug problems which created an opportunity for the family of the middle-aged couple to buy the house. Jimmie feels the couple doesn’t maintain the home to the standard that it deserves so when the occupants experience their own family turmoil Jimmie and Mont take advantage of the situation to move in. If you were to speak with each group of occupants they would likely view themselves as deserving of and entitled to the home but victims in the situation that led to its loss.

Ownership of the home has been in flux for several years and if people continue to flow in and out of the community the only constant will continue to be change.

To be clear, this isn’t an in-depth documentary about the realities of gentrification but rather one man’s family history with a particular house. Along the way we get bits and pieces of the story of how Jimmie’s family lost their home. It’s also important to note that Jimmie lives with Mont and his grandfather (Danny Glover) and sleeps on the floor in Mont’s room. He’s technically not homeless but could be considered housing insecure. Jimmie works as an attendant at a nursing home and while it isn’t clearly stated it seems that he might not be making enough to fully support himself.

I assume that Jimmie’s grandfather died and left the home to his dad, James Sr. (Rob Morgan), and aunt, Wanda (Tachina Arnold). Jimmie lived in a group home and also spent some of his youth squatting in abandoned houses that were procured by his father while his parents battled drug addiction. The relationship between Jimmie and James Sr. feels a bit strained but existent while Jimmie’s relationship with his mom is MIA and has been for quite some time.

The instability of his childhood and current precariousness of his life has made his grandfather’s home a symbol of stability and security. Jimmie’s desperation to reclaim this lost family treasure is really a means of reconnecting with his family and taking control of his own life.

Homelessness and housing insecurity is a real problem for several of the characters in the story.

There’s a bit of history about a local rent-controlled apartment building named The Savoy which was home to 100 residents some of whom had been living in the building for years. These people likely felt secure with their housing and safe from increasing rents until they weren’t. The landlord had the building burned down to clear a path for executing more profitable plans for the property which displaced the residents. While fictional, the scenario was reminiscent of the history of the phrase “The Bronx is burning.”

Mont and his grandfather allow Jimmie to live in their home and sleep on the floor in Mont’s room in exchange for chipping in on some of the bills. We don’t see it but at one point in time Jimmie was homeless and living in a car that belonged to his father. According to who is telling the story, Bobby (Mike Epps) stole or borrowed the car which he now lives in. Bobby informs Jimmie that he recently saw James Sr. who looked lonely and unhappy and encouraged Jimmie to stop by and spend some time with his dad who seems in need of company.

Bobby brags that he never had kids because he didn’t need the company, didn’t want anyone to talk to, and was fine by himself. But, it’s like the phrase, “the lady doth protest too much” as the words seem hollow. One of the film’s most moving and my favorite scene is a shot of Bobby alone in his car at night. We all know Epps as a funnyman but in a similar vein of Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, etc. he shines in dramatic roles. Epps is the only person in the scene and there’s no dialogue but he conveys a lot with just his facial expressions. There’s a difference between being alone and lonely. But, I certainly felt the loneliness of living in a car parked on a desolate street and only having your thoughts for comfort and companionship.

On the surface, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about gentrification and housing but the topic of Black masculinity and identity steadily flows beneath the surface. In various situations we see examples of the many facets of men and the faces a man might display to friends versus when alone or in the company of people with whom he can truly be himself.

Jimmie and Mont spend time with Grandpa Allen watching and discussing old movies. They’re obviously comfortable with themselves and each other. It’s not a problem for them to sit close together on the couch and openly enjoy each other’s company. There’s a certain warmth and ease present that you don’t always find amongst men. I loved the relationship between Jimmie and Mont, between Mont and his grandfather, as well as between the three of them. The support, acceptance, and camaraderie displayed was refreshing.

There’s a group of guys who hang out in front of Mont’s house referred to as the Greek Chorus. The group of probably 20 something year old guys constantly posturing and peacocking provides both comic relief as well as emotional moments of reflection. The guys make fun of Jimmie and Mont whenever they pass by, wisecracking about Jimmie’ shirt. (To be honest, Jimmie was indeed rocking the James from Good Times outfit. Every day.) It’s obvious that Jimmie and Mont don’t fit in with this group of guys. Their over-the-top machismo is the opposite of Jimmie and Mont’s open warmth and vulnerability.

The guys in the Greek Chorus are constantly arguing and making fun of each other about their manhood or lack thereof. One of the guys, Kofi, is singled out by the rest of the crew for running away from a fight. He also backs down from fighting his cousin despite being pressured. The guys in his crew make fun of him for this but none of them seem to be particularly tough guys.

It turns out that Jimmie and Mont knew Kofi growing up and Kofi and Jimmie actually lived together in a group home. Feeling sympathetic towards Kofi’s embarrassment, Mont invites him to hang out at Jimmie’s grandfather’s house. In this comfortable environment Kofi relaxes and allows his mask of over-the-top masculinity to drop.

He reminisces about being in the group home with Jimmie and expresses how impressed he is with the size and design of James I home. Kofi admits that he’d always dismissed Jimmie’s mention of his grandfather’s home as Jimmie trying to show off and be special. But, now having actually seen the home for himself he wishes that he’d had a grandfather like Jimmie’s to leave something behind for him. Such a place would allow him to just relax and be without any of the pretension needed out on the street corner.

Kofi and his friends make fun of Jimmie for not fitting their concept of manhood but the house changes things and Kofi admits that he wishes he had some of what Jimmie does. For Kofi, the house represents peace and tranquility, an opportunity to just relax and be himself. This tender moment shared by old friends makes the next few scenes especially heartbreaking when the guys head back out to the street. It’s back to business as usual but with Kofi now having added ammunition with which to tear down Jimmie and build his rep up.

One of the only men in the film to not spend time posturing and pretending is Mont. It’s not surprising, as Mont is a playwright who is more focused on observing and understanding other people. He sees and captures the nuances of other men pretending to be various versions of themselves. Mont has the freedom to completely be himself regardless of how weird or out of place he might seem within his community. There are no personas. Mont is just the same old Mont all the time.

Ultimately, Jimmie doesn’t have any financial or legal rights to the home and has to come to terms with the reality of the situation. The city is changing and the details of who lives where and owns what might change as well. Jimmie is from San Francisco but the city doesn’t belong to him any more than it did to his grandfather. Yet, his grandfather moved to the city and made a life for himself.

As Aunt Wanda explains to Jimmie, having to leave the city isn’t a loss on his part but rather the city’s loss. If San Francisco can’t appreciate him and his contributions then it’s the city’s loss if he takes himself and his talents elsewhere.

On the one hand, I think it’s a fair and truthful observation. For millennia, people have been leaving their countries, cities, and communities in search of better opportunities. Animals migrate throughout the year and different phases of life based on their biological cycle. So maybe on a basic level, the problem to be solved really isn’t people moving in or out of a neighborhood. But, rather addressing the circumstances that make life a struggle regardless of location.

I do have a pet peeve about The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it’s really not about this movie in particular but just an overall trend that I’m noticing. I’m put off by the increasingly frequent and casual way that the word “nigga” is tossed around in everyday conversation. I watched this movie during a weekend where I was catching up on Netflix and some other films and it was very noticeable.

There’s a trend in Black content where “nigga” is unecessarily littered throughout as a standin for every boy, man, male, person, place, thing, or filler word much like “bitch” is also used for every girl, woman, female, etc. I’m not for censorship but it just seems like it’s becoming so common place. It’s a bit of a tangent but as I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think, “man that’s a lot of niggas.”

I enjoyed The Last Black Man in San Francisco as it covers several currently hot topics but in it’s own way. It’s approach to discussing gentrification and homelessness through the story of this one individual helps to humanize the subject. The conversation isn’t an impersonal birds-eye-view of economic hardship and instability. Instead, we zoom in on how these various factors affect everyday people over the course of generations.

There’s a line in the movie that’s said by Mont, “Let us give each other the courage to see beyond the stories we are born into.” I thought it was a really succinct way of describing the message of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. We all have our own stories, experiences, personas, etc. Sometimes we can become trapped in them and they prevent us from growing and moving forward. Those perspectives can also prevent us from allowing other people to grow and move forward. But, through building strong and honest relationships with ourselves and each other we gain the ability to see our own complexities and realize that, “People aren’t one thing.”

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