Joe Talbot's powerful directorial debut highlights the people that urban gentrification left behind: the oddballs, the obsessives, a street preacher, a nudist and a Greek chorus of gang members. But the film's most resonant line goes to a homeless man who looks at a demolition site where people used to own homes and announces, "You never own shit."
What we can and can't own, and what it means to us to own things, are questions at the heart of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It's a classic underdog story that is also a tender, raging elegy for a whole way of life.
The underdog in question is Jimmie Fails, played by the real Jimmie Fails, a childhood friend of Talbot's. Together they developed a story loosely based on events in Fails' life (in Rolling Stone, he called it "more than 20 percent autobiographical") — namely, his efforts to reclaim the stunning Fillmore Street Victorian that his family owned in his childhood.
The family lost the house decades ago, and Jimmie now rooms with his best friend and coconspirator, the playwright Monty (Jonathan Majors), and Monty's blind, movie-loving dad (Danny Glover). But Jimmie still rides his skateboard downtown regularly to perform upkeep on his beloved Victorian, to the consternation of its current inhabitants.
When the house becomes temporarily vacant, Jimmie seizes his chance and moves in, with Monty in tow. They furnish the place with Jimmie's family heirlooms and set to work bringing it back to life.
Viewers who know anything about today's San Francisco, the land of Google commuter buses, açai bowls and multimillion-dollar listings on every corner, know Jimmie's dream is doomed. He's been priced out of his past. That doesn't make it any less wrenching to watch him try to persuade a loan officer that he'll never miss a payment because no other buyer shares his commitment to this property.
Playing two different shades of moody introspection, but always open to the camera, Fails and Majors create the kind of characters we want to see succeed. Majors makes Monty particularly affecting in his unpretentious struggle to filter the world through art, finding beauty in the trash-talking gangbangers on his corner.
Talbot's style is poetic and stylized, reminiscent of Barry Jenkins; key encounters are shot in close-up, and the music has the presence of a character. While some scenes suggest boldly lit theatrical tableaux, there's gorgeous fluidity in a shot that follows Jimmie down one of the city's famous hills on his board.
Viewers might sometimes be reminded of Be Kind Rewind, which also featured a misfit duo with a quixotic commitment to the past. While Michel Gondry's movie was too whimsical to make its audience uncomfortable, though, this one gets darker.
Dispossession is its theme, yet who can own San Francisco? Fails and Talbot take well-aimed shots at the white techies who have appropriated a formerly vibrant African American neighborhood, but they don't stop there. The same area, Jimmie tells us, was home to Japanese Americans until they were sent to internment camps. The further back you look at a place, especially a place as heartbreakingly beautiful as San Francisco, the more layers of hope and dispossession you find.
That doesn't mean Jimmie's personal dispossession doesn't matter — it does. His yearning to own his history becomes more resonant with every shot of this gorgeous film, until we understand exactly what he means when he says of the city, "You can't say you hate it unless you love it."