A deep-seated attachment to San Francisco runs throughout director Joe Talbot’s debut feature, but this adoration is honest, raw, and not without its critical caveats, especially when it comes to the city’s history of gentrification. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is both a gentle love letter and a scathing elegy. As it examines the city’s dying spirit, it both celebrates the beauty of home and prophetically cries out for the renewal and restoration of what home really should be.
Shot in disarmingly gorgeous and rich colors and accompanied by a score that often sends scenes into epic heights of emotion, the film follows Jimmie Fails (actor Jimmie Fails playing a fictionalized version of himself) as he attempts to gain back ownership of the Victorian mansion his grandfather built.
Jimmie’s grandfather is rumored to have been the first black man in San Francisco, and Jimmie bears this family history with pride. He desperately wants to find his way back into the house, though his father (Rob Morgan) lost it in the ‘90s, so he regularly treks from the outskirts of the city with his quiet playwright friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) to do repairs on the property, giving the home the care he thinks the current dwellers, a middle-aged white couple, won’t.
The film is not only a love story between Jimmie and the house, but also between Jimmie and Montgomery, whose disparate personalities create a quirky kind of harmony, as they encourage one another’s vision for the future. While Jimmie fixates on his family’s history and his own destiny, and while Montgomery attempts to craft stories and images from the complicated world around them, other young men in their neighborhood dabble in a masculinity that Jimmie and Montgomery just can’t master, taunting and threatening the two dreamers with a bravado and violence foreign to the cocoon of nostalgia and creativity they have built.
Eventually, the flux of San Francisco’s real estate realities hits the white occupiers of the Victorian house, and when its current owner dies and an estate dispute erupts among the heirs, Jimmie sees an opportunity. While the house sits in limbo, Jimmie moves in, pushing the place back into a vision of what it was in the memories he’s been cobbling through bits of family mythology. With the help of Montgomery, he relocates all the family’s old furniture (which has been kept in perfect condition offsite) back into the house and builds the home he’s always wanted it to be.