The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an indelible story about friendship, home, and loss, confesses the faults and triumphs of a city and the love and loss of its people. Directed by Joe Talbot, the film is visually and emotionally nourishing, provoking an interesting post-movie discussion about the idea of home. What does home mean to different people? How does a person’s life influence their perspective on home?
The protagonist, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), seems to struggle with the very question of home, as the film explores his relationship with a house, his old family home, and ultimately the city of San Francisco. As the camera pans to the house, we recognise just how significant it is from its grandeur: it is tall, white, and ornate. More importantly, it stands as a physical token of Jimmie’s history, family, and identity in a city that is changing.
The house in question is an old Victorian home in the Fillmore that Jimmie believes – or wants to believe – was built by his grandfather in the 1940’s after World War Two. It’s an admirable story, one that confirms the house definitively belongs to Jimmie. As he yells the tale from the balcony of the house, down at some bewildered tour guide and surprised tourists, the audience is quick to believe it as well. But the lie unravels itself with time, revealing that Jimmie’s family got the house as a result of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.
Jimmie places so much of himself into this house that it becomes wrapped in his identity. He visits every day with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), he tends to the house by painting the facade, and when the opportunity arises, he and Mont move in and live there. All that we know about Jimmie revolves around it: his childhood, his family history, and his desire to get back into his home. Jimmie’s obsession collapses with the reality he already knows.
But why does Jimmie tell himself this lie for so long? Growing up, he never had a stable home; he lived in a car and then a group home at some point in his youth. Still, these places or objects could embody the idea of home for him. In fact, the car is still being used and Jimmie takes a short ride with the man who stole it from him and his father. The group home, we assume, still operates as well. There is no desire for him to reclaim these places as his home, by either returning to them or reconciling with them. But the house in the Fillmore is different because it is changing, like much of San Francisco. Its appearance is changing, its purpose is changing, and its history is changing.
The gentrification of San Francisco has long been a conflict between different communities and classes in the city. This issue creates the complex undertones for the story, as we meet Jimmie’s family members who were pushed out of the city due to rising real estate prices. The film presents the effects of gentrification on the city and how it has driven out its own people, by discussing three separate occasions of displacement surrounding the house in the Fillmore. First, the Japanese-Americans during the war; then, Jimmie’s family possibly in the 90s; and finally, the baby-boomer couple in the present day. In the end, the house is used and abused by real estate agents to make a profit, who quickly forget that its true significance is in memory, not money.
Love and loss go together in this film about San Francisco. The fear of losing space and memory and the love for a changing city. Jimmie cannot leave San Francisco since he’s “the only one left” – the last black man in San Francisco. Once he is gone, his history and all his memories will follow. The house is a physical representation of Jimmie’s presence in the city, and if he loses the house, he loses himself. The consequences of gentrification in neighbourhoods like San Francisco is the erasure of its people.
The film’s ending will leave audiencs questioning what home truly is. The thought of the place we call home changing is terrifying. Whether a person’s notion of home is the street they grew up on or the last house they lived in, change is often feared, especially when it provokes displacement and abandonment. The Last Black Man in San Francisco captures the melancholy of yearning for a home that is fading, and a fear of fading with it.
by Chiara Campagnaro
Chiara Campagnaro is a history student at the University of Toronto. She enjoys 80s nostalgia and sad-ending films. Her favourite films include La La Land, Dead Poets Society, and Sing Street. You can follow Chiara on Letterboxd @chiaraaa and on Instagram @cheuovo