The name of your protagonist should not be a single-sentence plot summary. Ordinarily, if you’re telling the story of one man’s futile struggle against gentrification, calling the guy “Jimmie Fails” would be way too on the nose.
But Fails isn’t just the quixotic main character referenced in the title of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. That’s also the name of the actor who plays him, and who collaborated with his pal, director Joe Talbot, on a story drawn in part from his real-life experience of being priced out of the city he grew up in. And the realities of African-American urban displacement are just the movie’s starting point as it explores the ways in which the inability of men to communicate with each other drives them into delusional and even self-destructive obsessions.
Fails lives with a playwright buddy named Monty (Jonathan Majors) and Monty’s blind grandpa (Danny Glover) near a section of the bay so polluted the men working there wear hazmat suits. From here the duo regularly skateboard across town to Jimmie’s childhood home in the Fillmore neighborhood, where to the consternation of its oft-absent owners, he dotes upon the property like an unpaid and possessive caretaker. When they return home, Jimmie and Monty have to navigate past a gaggle of puffed-up corner boys who take breaks from their ritual shit-talking of one another to roast the outsiders.
An estate battle leaves the Fillmore place vacant, and Jimmie sees his chance to reclaim the property he feels he’s re-earned through his dedicated work. And thus far, the film feels fired up by a uniquely late-capitalist alienation, the frustration that we care more about the places we live and the jobs we do than the people who own and profit off them, the sense that our willingness to work to improve our surroundings earns us some moral right to them.
But far from settling for this individualist heroism, the story zags, and soon the film is questioning whether the battle against economic forces Jimmie fights isn’t already lost, whether Jimmie isn’t seeking to preserve false histories because that’s all he has left, whether we fight for the spaces we call home because places are easier to care about than the people who once inhabited them.
Not that The Last Black Man in San Francisco ever states a thesis that clumsily. The movie juggles so many ideas you expect a few to clatter to the floor, though thanks to its dreamy stylization Talbot instead allows his themes to float off like stray objects in a space capsule. It gives off mild echoes of the absurdism of Donald Glover’s Atlanta or Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, but its politics are far from the former’s dissociated paralysis and the latter’s gonzo revolutionary chaos.
The camera’s slow trawl through the city at first feels a tinge gratuitous, like a newbie director scratching a documentarian’s itch. But it turns out Talbot understands a city as a stage where—from the street toughs who taunt Jimmie and Mont to the dockside preacher ranting against the modern world—people are acting out their roles as a way of grasping some meaningful identity.
And so, of course, is Jimmie. He may be intensely committed to regaining and restoring his home, but his eyes don’t flash with a zealot’s fire. Instead, he floats with a wary distance from those around him, consistently dressed in what one character disses as his “father from Good Times shirt.” Sleeping by one another’s side, sharing a skateboard, Jimmie and Monty share an intense physical intimacy that never verges on the sexual, but they still struggle to communicate with each other. Theirs is a quiet parallel to the chest-to-chest male bonding and battling between the thugs out in the street. And in some ways, they’re no less distant from one another.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Director: Joe Talbot
Staring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover
Theater: Now playing at Walker Art Center; opens Friday at Uptown Theatre