Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Cassidy Johnson

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is not your typical movie: it’s a film. A poignant story of loss, love, and belonging that is a wide departure from the spectacle, action, and remakes that populate movie screens in 2019. With exquisite cinematography and realistic social woes, this mixture of documentary and drama is a standout film and a true piece of cinema.

From rising production company A24, the storyline centers around San Francisco native Jimmie Fails, a young black man who belongs nowhere, and his best friend Monty, an aspiring playwright, as they attempt to reclaim Jimmie’s childhood home. According to local lore, Jimmie’s grandfather, “the first black man in San Francisco,” built the Victorian-style house in 1946 at a time when the neighborhood was considered the “Harlem of the West.” Somewhere in the course of Jimmie’s childhood, his family lost the beautiful piece of architecture scattering them across the Bay Area and Northern California. Having spent his entire life in the city, Jimmie believes the city is the only place where he can belong and that beautiful edifice on Golden Gate and Fillmore is the only place he can call home. Jimmie is both an insider and an outsider, a universal theme that resonates with the audience.

The first five minutes of the film are set to inform the audience that they are about to embark on an emotional odyssey. Before any image appears on the screen, the musical score sets in with sad slow strings that remind one of Anna Karenina, a film without a happy ending. The music and vocals throughout the films are highly evocative. San Francisco is introduced with a sermon from a black man standing on a soapbox/milk crate preaching about how the city itself it out to get them and must be reclaimed. The scene sets up the repeating theme of love-fueled-hate that persists throughout the film.

This is not the San Francisco of Full House, but a city with a dual identity much like the people who live in it. There is a conflict between the past and the future, between progress and gentrification, between those who want to remake the city and those who built it. These are struggles present in every urban area across the country, however, the way Jimmie and Monty choose to combat such issues (by squatting in the house for weeks) is unique.

That Victorian house is the only true home Jimmie has ever known, and he is determined to resist all the societal and economic pressures that attempt to keep them apart.

Jimmie’s emotional connections to the city and the house are largely established by the cinematography of the motion picture. The camera usually remains still, letting the characters provide all the action for the frame. At times, the camera zooms in from a long shot to further focus attention on the movements performed or emotions displayed by the characters. When the camera does move, like when following Jimmie down the hilled streets of the city, the motion serves to further immerse the viewer into the story.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the type of film that sticks with the viewer after they have left the theater or shut the lid of their laptop. This is not a story where familiar social ills are cured, nor where there is a happy ending.

This is a story that reflects the real ideals, circumstances, and emotions of people trapped between the past and the present, and who cannot effectively secure a future.

Although Jimmie’s melancholic universe may be a slight alteration of reality, it is true enough to the lives of those who have been relegated to the margins of society. Jimmie, like so many of us, yearns to belong so bad, that he convinces himself that he does. And like the rest of us, when that illusion is exposed, is his bare and with no choice but to begin anew.

A24 provided a free screening of the film in association with Vanderbilt’s International Lens program at Sarratt Cinema. This was the first of many events and screening sponsored by A24 to take place on campus and at the Belcourt. The next A24 movie screening, “Good Time,” will take place on December 5.

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