Life is stranger than fiction. Things happen without rhyme or reason, and we, the living, are pulled along, anchoring ourselves to friends, family, lovers; people, places, and things in an effort to stay afloat, to make sense of it all. In The Last Black Man in San Francisco the protagonist, a Black American named Jimmie Fails (played by himself and loosely based on his real life), is anchored to a house. His grandfather built it, he insists, and he’s drawn to it, returning repeatedly despite the fact that his family lost it in a wave of gentrification and it has had new owners for the last 12 years. They’re well-meaning older white liberals that were clearly beatnik artists once, dropping “hey man” into their sentences and saying they don’t want to call the cops if they catch him on the property again — but they will. It’s a thinly veiled threat couched in the kind of casual racism that hovers throughout the film, even after said owners lose the house themselves in a serendipitous twist of fate.
Seizing the moment, Jimmie and his best friend, an aspiring playwright named Montgomery, move in and begin squatting at the property. Jimmie is as anchored to Mont as he is to the home, and they are near inseparable. Mont is played by the wonderful Jonathan Majors as strange and creative, carrying a red notebook tucked into the waistband of his pants where he jots down lines of dialogue to rehearse in his mirror later. Life is all a stage to Mont, who is working on a play about his neighborhood and the people in it. He often re-enacts interactions from his day at a nearby dock before going to work at a fish market, and is known to break up neighborhood fights by ‘directing’ those participating to ‘give him more.’ Mont doesn’t question Jimmie’s obsession with the house, and prior to their squatting in it, he often accompanied him on his missions to ‘take care of it,’ which involved things like painting and gardening the home whenever the owners were away.
As the plot unfolds, we learn why the quiet and solemn Jimmie is so attached to the idea of the house as his home: he grew up on the streets and in a group home after his father, a drug addict and professional squatter himself, got the family evicted. When we meet Jimmie, he is crashing with Mont and Mont’s grandfather, played by Danny Glover, in a crowded row home where he sleeps on the floor. He works in a Victorian manor as a hospice aid to the elderly and wanders aimlessly when he is not with Mont or at work, and he always, always ends up back at the old house. Here is a man who has never really lived anywhere, searching for a tether to link him to his own life.
Much has been made of the sanitizing effect of gentrification on neighborhoods, and this film takes place almost entirely in Mont’s community where they now reside, versus the Fillmore area of San Francisco where the old house is. In Mont’s neighborhood an assortment of characters bring the area to life, from homeless beggars singing exquisite operas to children playing with frenetic energy in a junkyard. Comedic actor Mike Epps cameos as a family friend living in his car. There is a street preacher who sets up on a crate every morning, warning about the government workers in hazmat suits cleaning up the nearby bay water, which is filthy. He questions why do they have suits on while they clean it up for the next wave of tenants brought in by gentrification, while the long-term residents live without protection. Five shit talkers post up on the corner like a modern day Greek chorus, regularly regaling each other with tall tales of what they each did that day in the neighborhood (“You ran!” “No, I didn’t!”), and heaping Jimmie and Mont with ridicule.
They are poor, but they all know each other: Jimmie previously lived in the car with Bobby, the family friend, for example, and also knows one of the corner boys from the group home. It perfectly demonstrates the culture of predominantly low-income, majority-minority communities pre-gentrification, where residents make do despite living in poverty and conditions that are encouraged by lackadaisical government institutions. In the Fillmore area where the old house is, the sidewalks are clean, every neighbor we meet is white, and the history of the neighborhood as one primarily inhabited by Japanese and Black occupants is reduced to a footnote on a Segway tour. After moving back in, Jimmie comes out to introduce himself to a white neighbor, who wonders aloud, “What the fuck was that about?” when Jimmie goes inside. The culture of a neighborhood where people must rely on each other to survive is different than one where rich homeowners effectively move in to hide from their neighbors. And despite the common false argument in favor of gentrification as something that cleans up and improves cities, the film questions where is this government infrastructure of assistance for long-term poor Black people that actually need it, and why does it only appear after the residents have been pushed out? Why are the residents of the neighborhood never given hazmat suits? It is essentially a hostile takeover by allowing an area to become so rundown that everyone leaves or loses their homes, and then swooping in to ‘revitalize’ and sell it.
This slice of life act structure utilized is reminiscent of a play, but it works effectively onscreen because of strong performances by the cast who truly inhabit their roles as the various cogs keeping the community going, along with the brilliant direction and cinematography. There are many intriguing perspectives and camera angles meant to fully engross us in the rhythm of life. If you walk down a busy street in any major city, you will pass such things as homeless people on the corner, businessmen in suits, and city workers in uniform in a five minute time span, and director Joe Talbot makes fantastic use of long takes following Jimmie in uncut and occasionally slow-motion scenes as he rides the bus, walks, and skateboards down the street, the assorted cast members weaving in and out of the frame. When Jimmie and Mont get off the bus into the smoke of a neighborhood fire, the doors open in slow-mo and they step into a cloud of white haze so thick you can’t see anything. A chance encounter is shown solely through extreme close-ups on the faces of the two people involved (reminiscent of Barry Jenkins style of zooming in on his subjects in mirrors). Oftentimes things happen in life that are so surprising as to seem surreal, and there is no shying away from that surrealism here. One ingenious scene features a man sitting naked — naked — at a bus stop, only for a party bus to pull up moments later with passengers in such a public drunken stupor that the man shakes his head at them and utters, “This fucking city.”
The costuming is also impeccable. There is an undercurrent of plot regarding the question of identity, which is primarily explored in the movie through clothing and behavior. Jimmie is ridiculed for a red plaid shirt he enjoys wearing by the corner boys and also by his father, who asks him why he is dressed ‘like a white boy.’ The next time he sees his father, he wears something else. Mont regularly dresses in what the other characters call ‘church clothes,’ wearing sandals, slacks, a button up, and jacket. The insults that the corner boys heap on each other is often related to appearance, along with the accusation of being ‘soft’ due to clothes or behavior (Jimmie and Mont are also taunted for acting ‘weird’ and ‘confusing’). Mont and Jimmie find solace in each other and in the house as an island of misfit toys so to speak, and the overall concept of allowing Blackness to be multifaceted and not any one thing is spot on. Even those that tease them are not painted as one-dimensional bullies, but Black humans with a variety of thoughts, emotions, and personality traits themselves. By the end of the film, Mont implores Jimmie to find his identity outside that of the house.
The link between Mont and Jimmie is a lovely display of platonic male friendship, a bond between friends so close they have essentially become brothers. And while Tichina Arnold makes an appearance as Jimmie’s aunt, the cast is almost entirely made up of Black men. We see them laugh, cry, yell, and express a full spectrum of emotions, so important in a time when Black people continue to fight for our humanity. There are also no romantic subplots or disagreements over women, which is refreshing in a medium where love triangles permeate stories about men who are the best of friends. Jimmie Fails is utterly convincing as someone searching for purpose and stability in a life where he has constantly had the rug pulled from under him, and finding it not necessarily in having a place to lay his head, but in a friend. But life is like that, in that it will take you in completely unexpected directions to find that which you seek. Life is stranger than fiction, and that’s the wonderful thing about it.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.