San Francisco’s transformation from hippie enclave to gay mecca to overpriced techie town has been well-chronicled in recent years. The subject is chiefly front and center this summer. It’s viewed through an LGBTQ lens in the new Netflix version of the Armistead Maupin series “Tales of the City” and through the eyes of the African-American community in the exceptional indie theatrical release “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” (A24).
Like 2018’s Oakland-set “Sorry to Bother You”, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” traverses the territory of the Bay Area’s forgotten class of citizens. In “The Last Black Man…” (a dual award-winner at Sundance Film Festival), co-writer/director Joe Talbot and co-writer/star Jimmie Fails hand deliver a love letter to their hometown.
Expert skateboarder and nursing home employee Jimmie (Fails) is obsessed with a house in which his family once resided. According to Jimmie, the house with the glorious gingerbread detailing and the witch’s hat was built in the 1940s by his grandfather. The legend goes that he was “the first black man in San Francisco” and the neighborhood was “the Harlem of the West”.
Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), Jimmie’s best friend, fully supports him in his endeavor to maintain upkeep of the house, now owned by a white couple who are more concerned with Jimmie’s tendency to trespass than his unwelcome care for the property. The many-layered Montgomery, who may come off as a ditzy artist, is in reality at work on his theatrical masterpiece also titled “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”. He also cares for his blind Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover) and interacts with the members of a gang who hang out in front of his grandfather’s house and act as a Greek chorus.
When the residents of Jimmie’s family home are forced to vacate, he takes action by squatting there with Montgomery. He visits his Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) who provides him family heirlooms for the house. However, interaction with his irresponsible and corrupt father James Sr. (Rob Morgan) doesn’t go as Jimmie had hoped. Unfortunately, Jimmie’s happiness in the house is short-lived as realtor Clayton Newsom (Finn Wittrock) – catch the dig at the former San Francisco mayor and current California governor Gavin Newsom? – disrupts his living situation. Additionally, the murder of Greek chorus member Kofi (Jamal Trulove), with whom Jimmie lived in a group home as a child, increases Jimmie’s downward spiral.
While you may find yourself thinking, “Where are the gays? It’s San Francisco!”, “The Last Black Man…” subtly handles the issue by creating a below-the-surface (not down-low, mind you) relationship between the main characters. They are everything to each other. The walls of playwright Montgomery’s bedroom, where Jimmie sleeps on a cot next to him, is decorated with the covers of “Playbill” programs (including “Ain’t Misbehavin’”), possibly suggesting something about him. Also, the way that Montgomery and Jimmie look at each other is homoerotic while transcending sexuality.
Unlike any other movie you are likely to see this year, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a memorable movie experience, and an exciting introduction to a promising filmmaker and his co-writer/star.