Directed by Joe Talbot
Written by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert
Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, and Tichina Arnold
Running time 2 hours
MPAA rating R
By Jaime Davis, The Fixer
In the fall of 2016, I was sent to San Francisco on a work trip. At the time, I was working for an Ivy League university as a kind of jack of all trades for a high-profile academic program: I was equal parts student advisor, alumni relations point person, and admissions officer. But basically I was a concierge – whatever a student or alum needed, I tried to make it happen. This trip was designed as an alumni development vehicle for the program – we were shuttling our newly appointed faculty director around to meet high-profile alums in person culminating with an event for all local alumni complete with open bar and fancy finger foods and all that nonsense. Since the program I worked for allowed students to earn two full undergraduate degrees at once in business and engineering, you can imagine we were after some of those sweet tech bro dollars floating around the Bay Area.
My flight got in kinda late at night, and instead of Ubering I decided to take the BART into the city. I stayed at the Warwick on Geary Street, two blocks from Union Square, and another block away from where my faculty director boss stayed. When I got off the train and approached street level, the first thing I noticed was the amount of homeless people. There was a mini city right at the exit of the station, and as I walked along Market Street around midnight, there were multiple homeless people lined up at different points, getting ready to end their night, trying to find solace in sleep. I’ve lived in cities for the past twenty years, and, outside of driving through Skid Row on my way to work when I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000’s, I have never witnessed such intense need from a group of people. I immediately was struck by my own privilege, my own extreme luck to have a place to call my own each night and little luxuries to go with it. I reached my hotel and easily found sleep tucked safely within the comfy folds of slightly high-end hotel bedding.
The next day, as I walked down Geary past Louis Vuitton and Chanel and Valentino, not to mention 3,787 upscale coffee shops (like, how many different kinds of coffee do SFers really friggin need) and every food trend represented in fast casual form (Acai bowls? Yup. Goth food? Sure. Matcha all day every day? Uh-huh), I encountered multiple homeless people who appeared unwell, requiring medical help of varying degrees. It was a disorienting experience, this insanely extreme dichotomy between have and have not. Later that afternoon I joined my boss for an out-of-this-world fancy sushi lunch with an alum who had sold some kind of confusing, complicated tech company and recently started a private equity firm with a particular focus on the environmental space. As I fumbled with my chopsticks, our dear, wealthier-than-thou alum basically informed me and my boss that people aren’t really real – we’re just holographic projections of ourselves interacting with other projections. Nothing in this world, he said, was real. When he started talking about other astral planes I put my chopsticks down slowly, calmly, blinking multiple times, double-checking we hadn’t accidentally stumbled into a lunch meeting with Matthew McConaughey. And then I got really pissed off - who the fuck did this guy think he was, Tupac’s hologram? Only Tupac’s hologram can truly claim to be a holographic projection. He became, to me, a symbol of what was wrong with San Francisco.
Needless to say I left that trip and headed back to the comfort of Philly absolutely hating San Francisco and everything it had turned into. “The tech bros won - they’ve taken over this city,” I thought, as I bypassed the BART, succumbing to a $60 Uber to the airport I couldn’t afford. Thank the lort for expense reports.
Gentrification is nothing new in the US – anyone who lives in a US city or has even remotely followed the news in the past few years is aware of what’s happening. The folks who left cities behind to blight sixty or seventy years ago are back, and they got more money and clout than you and they’re coming for your neighborhood because they demand the coffee and the SoulCycle and the trendy bars. I know I’m not necessarily part of the solution, and I’m often seen as part of the problem in my own city, but with over $1000 in student loan payments a month, I’m just doing the best I can. I’ve moved around a lot recently because rent is too damn high, as the saying goes. And Philly’s proximity to New York, where rents been too damn high for too damn long, well, it’s an invasion people. Philly is turning into the next Brooklyn. And it makes me sad on nearly a daily basis, seeing what’s happening to my beloved city. The other day I walked by Philly’s City Hall and about lost my shit when I saw a Starbucks in the middle of it. City Hall is for the people – literally. It houses all the municipal offices inside but outside they have a little water park in summer and ice skating in winter. Nothing about Starbucks is necessarily for the people, but those frappuccinos sure are good, I guess?
Gentrification, loss, the displacement of people of color – this is the backdrop of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a beautiful middle finger to the San Francisco of today. At the same time it’s a love letter to those pushed out, especially people of color, having been shifted to often overlooked and little-served perimeters. The film opens on Jimmie Fails (pretty much playing a version of himself) and his best friend Montgomery (the incredible Jonathan Majors) in their neighborhood of Bayview Hunters Point in SF as they wait for a bus that never comes. They observe and question the white men in hazmat suits cleaning up the nearby bay. Why do they wear suits while everyone else, all black, roams the neighborhood without such protection? What do these men know that the locals aren’t being told? Within the first few minutes of the film, the gorgeous score by Emile Mosseri lulls you in with its lush oboe and woodwind and brass; the cinematography, sharply constructed, framed, and vividly hued, beckons you into a film that just may make you fall in love with the movies all over again.
At least, this is what it did for me.
Director Joe Talbot has been friends with the real-life Jimmie Fails since they were kids; TLBMISF is loosely based on Fails’ experiences growing up in the city. The fictional Fails of the film is enamored with a home his family lost in the 90’s, a Victorian beauty in the historic Fillmore district. I knew little about this part of the city, but the movie explains how the neighborhood had previously been home to Japanese Americans earlier in the 20th century. When they were forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these abandoned homes became a refuge for many African Americans fleeing the horror of the Jim Crow-era south. Fillmore was once considered the Harlem of the West until the 1970’s when the predominately black enclave was deemed a prime project by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. At the time, Fillmore was home to 183 black-owned businesses. Today, there is very little black presence or representation in the district.
At the beginning of TLBMISF, when their bus never shows up, Jimmie and Monty instead skateboard into the city center; the film stealthily, in slow-motion, shows the reactions of various white tech bros and San Franciscans seeing two black men in the city – it’s a witty visual aptly highlighting the differences between Jimmie and Monty’s SF, and the SF now belonging to everyone else. While Monty’s family still resides in Bayview Hunters Point (his grandfather is portrayed by the always wonderful Danny Glover), Jimmie’s is separated. His aunt lives on the outskirts; his dad is selling bootleg DVD’s while holed up in one of those residential hotels you pay for by the week. Running into his mother randomly on the bus, Jimmie doesn’t even know she’s back in SF. It’s painfully obvious that the loss of their great home in Fillmore did more than merely displace a family – it separated them completely.
The film dives into more than just the effects gentrification can have on those forced to leave behind the neighborhoods they grew and thrived in. It’s also about what we’re willing to accept about ourselves and others, what we’re willing to show the world, what others perceive in us to be true at first glance. It’s when the film veers in these multiple directions that its messages become a bit muddled, but I still enjoyed these thematic tangents. A gaggle of black men dining out on their quintessential black masculinity form a Greek chorus of sorts; Jimmie and Monty challenge the notions of this persona – does it exist because it’s what the community reveres? Or does it exist because white elites have put them in that box? Much of the latter portion of the film dives into the concept of identity and our internal struggles as a result – just because someone is Italian doesn’t mean all they do is eat spaghetti all day, yet many of us like these boxes, feel quite comfortable in them, while others do not. As Jimmie says in the film, “People aren’t one thing.” As Jimmie comes to finally accept that his beloved family home is forever gone, he struggles with the weight of being the Last Black Man in his old neighborhood. As he returns to Bayview Hunters Point, back with Monty and his grandfather, he realizes he can no longer lay his head in San Francisco. It no longer exists for him, or welcomes him, as someone who is on the surface a person of color, but who is highly-nuanced, just like all people. What does it mean when he leaves? And where does he go? And will he ever find a place his soul can truly call home? These were the questions rummaging through my head in the last few moments of this amazingly beautiful film.
The one thing that troubles me about TLBMISF: I worry many will not see it. I implore you to please seek this one out. Watch it. Process it. And even if you’re not enamored with it as I am, tell others about it. Encourage them to seek it out, watch it, and process it. To me, it’s an important moment in film, showcasing the talent of first-time director Joe Talbot, giving a voice to Jimmie Fails and his experience, and hopefully signaling much more to come from Jonathan Majors, Emile Mosseri, and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra.
As I walked out of the screening, I kept thinking about my little trip to San Francisco, my own tiny, insufficient interaction with a city that made me “hate” it. There’s a moment in the film where two Cool Kids on a bus (one of them played by Thora Birch) attack SF for its perceived lack of Cool Kid amenities, and Jimmie looks at them calmly and says, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” He’s right: I don’t get to hate San Francisco. I wish I could have seen the city through the eyes of Jimmie, in the way he wished it could be.