A casualty of the gentrification that San Francisco experienced over the past half century, the expansive Victorian-style home that was built in 1946 by the grandfather of The Last Black Man in San Francisco‘s protagonist, Jimmie Fails (the actor playing a version of himself), proves that it’s more than just a house, it’s a metaphorical symbol of his identity.
Jimmie feels the effects every day, so much so that he pays daily visits to the home whilst the current owners are out of the area. Whilst he does voluntary touch-ups on its structure – even if the occupants threaten to call the police on him – in order to prevent the home from crumbling under mistreatment, his right-hand, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), sketches the exterior from across the street, existing in his own quiet, creative reality.
When Jimmie learns of an estate dispute between the current owners and their family, leading to the property being vacant, he hatches a scheme towards claiming squatters’ rights – something his con-artist father (Rob Morgan) would have implemented in the past. Changing the locks and hauling his grandfather’s furniture out of storage from his aunt’s (Tichina Arnold) house, Jimmie boldly stakes claim inside the house, going so far as to transfer the utility bills to his name. His near-obsession with the dwelling stems deeper than merely being a family heirloom of sorts (though the Joe Talbot/Rob Richert-penned script suggests Jimmie’s knowledge of the house isn’t as authentic as he believes), it’s his last connection to a city that has seemingly forgotten the Black American.
Due to Talbot, Richert and Fails’ own intimate connection to the story – the trio having collaborated and basing the narrative loosely on Fails’ life – there’s an almost documentary-like quality to the film. We feel uneasy at some of the moments we’re privy to experience, even disoriented at the tonal shift between comedic undertones and psychological turmoil; a side-arc involving a street gang and their ironic commentary on toxic masculinity provides the film some of its most bizarre and heartbreaking material, as well as giving a further insight into the disconnected (some might even say closeted) reality that Montgomery resides in.
The odd duality that is present throughout The Last Black Man in San Francisco almost proves to its detriment at times as these peculiarities run the risk of being too off-putting (especially for mainstream-minded audiences), though, to the credit of Talbot and co., they gradually merge into charming quirks that ultimately soften the film. An odd exchange will be followed-up by something truly emotionally resonating, perhaps suggesting that whatever eccentricities are applied are only to make each profound moment that much more so.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is currently screening in Australian cinemas for an exclusive season at Dendy Cinemas.