Review: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ has gentrification blues

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Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A24

Maybe it's because I catch a lot of matinees, but it's rare for me to hear a movie interrupted by a long succession of oblivious snores. Alas, such was the case this weekend in my screening of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a movie which the normally energetic friend who accompanied me also couldn't stay awake for. I survived.

As belabored as its mouthful of a title, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is meant to be a romantically allegorized and faintly surreal elegy for a San Francisco that more kinds of people could afford to live in — one that feels a long way back now. Despite director Joe Talbot's best intentions, it lacks political teeth or convincing texture and becomes instead a kind of satire of itself. With its exasperated, agreeable politics (agreeable at least to lifelong lefties, the primary arthouse and festival audience, who bumped this movie up to its relatively wide state of distribution), it seems tailored specifically for the NPR crowd.

Starring Jimmie Fails in a story he co-wrote based in part on his own life, Jimmie (the character) spends most of the movie fawning over an old house he claims his grandfather built in the '40s (a narrative that is repeatedly re-examined). A great and meticulously realized beauty photographed well enough here, the house has been lost or sold off sometime in the mid-'90s and is now held by an older (and, as it's implied, gentrifying) white couple who frequently shoo Jimmie away as he lingers nearby. Even as they live in it, he works to pretty it up and retouch its paint, suggesting that he appreciates it to a degree they never could — seeming to hope that by caring for it, that by some miracle of karma, he might be restored to his place as its rightful owner. When the couple leaves while disputing an inheritance, Jimmie and his close but more level-headed and artistic friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) move in as squatters and proceed to work on the house. In depicting the characters working to restore the home, director Joe Talbot is weirdly shy about the process (possibly because of trouble with shooting permits). As a recent first-time homeowner, I was shocked to see a depiction of renovation that involved lazily swinging a hammer at the same place, lovingly dragging a brush over the same trim, and (with devastating sloppiness) cleaning out some gutters. The gutters, a synecdoche of the movie's devotion to prettiness, are filled with pristine, dry, and unrotted leaves. If only rehabbing could be so easy! Or at least so free of charge as the movie makes it look. The depiction of their work is as impossible a fantasy as their stay within the house itself — and it's hard to want to invest in either of the two.

I kvetch about this oversight not just because it's irksome personally but because it's aesthetically telling; Talbot's direction foregrounds the house as a charged romantic object at the expense of all else. In what's ostensibly a love letter to a city, the streets are nearly empty, women are virtually (troublingly) absent, persons onscreen exist specifically as cogs in a crawling story, and the cast hardly ever goes to work. I'm not sure anyone eats or drinks. In a story nominally concerned with the violence that displacement, eviction, and gentrification do to the (particularly Black) lives of individuals and communities — in so many words, the near-genocidal destruction of cities and their long-term residents — the finer-grained (but less sexy) features that so dehumanize workers in our present are missing, if they register at all. Wealth consolidation, the gig economy, the tech boom, the second job, the inflated housing market — they're not just unarticulated but invisible and unimplied, things a viewer is supposed to infer without feeling even secondary effects of.

The actors here are more than fine, particularly those who play Jimmie and Mont, but it's hard to save a script this thin with acting. A movie that's shaped as carefully around prettiness (as opposed to narrative or psychology) as thisis can feel poetic until you realize it's totally ungrounded, that there's just not much there. It's a shame given so much about this film's setting, look, and cast that it can't do better — all the more so when Oakland, with its supply of both better (Sorry to Bother You) and recent (Blindspotting) movies set there and its greater (to my mind) wealth of real-life stories like this, lies just east across the water — but this movie's (this director's, really) driving force seems to be a desire to be written about and to be liked.

Film has a unique property of capturing and immortalizing places, moments, communities, and textures, but here that's sadly underutilized even as it's culturally and politically vital to do so. Talbot seems strenuously conscious of this need, making his failure to fulfill it seem more a matter of some missing vision than of care or good intent. Movies are made of what's onscreen, though, and without them doing a better job of capturing the life and texture of a San Francisco — or an Oakland, or a Berkeley, or a Detroit — it's impossible to believe any viewer taking in this film's story might find a tangible connection with what has been or is being lost.

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