The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells the story of a young (obviously) black man named Jimmie Fails who attempts to move back into the home his grandfather built in San Francisco. In completing the task of obtaining the house, Jimmie seeks out the help of his odd socially unaware friend Montgomery. Jimmie, a care worker, lives with his friend Montgomery and Montgomery’s blind grandfather. However, Jimmie returns to the big white house with red and gold trim constantly touching up the paint, watering the plants, and telling the owner they need to take better care of ‘his’ house. The house, which Jimmie calls his family home is inhabited by a white middle class family who we, as the viewers, learn little to nothing about. However, after the matriarch dies, the family leaves the property and the house is left completely empty, open for Jimmie and Montgomery to illegally move in. The film deals with the tough topics of gentrification, identity and black masculinity.
The cinematography and soundtrack alone will make you cry. I promise you. The lighting and color of the film make for a soothing experience. Interestingly enough for me what I thought was most beautiful about the film is how they leave San Francisco untouched. There was no sign of eccentric props or costume design. The film shots were simple and consistent. There are rarely harsh sounds. It feels uncurated, like they searched for and found San Francisco’s natural beauty.
I cannot tell you how obsessed I am with this opening scene. Skating through the city with Jimmie and Montgomery, the viewers in the three minutes get a tour of San Francisco and ultimately get introduced to the family home. The voice overtop passionately claiming San Francisco, with violins overtop. At one point a man (who seems mentally ill) runs after them saying “where are we going” and “I’m coming.” unbothered, Jimmie and Montgomery skate along. As a person who grew up in a city that experience and the response of the two men is so authentic and so believable. There is a comfort and strength held by the two men as they skate through the city, laying claim to their home.
In many ways (in the best way possible) the film feels like it was made by two best friends on a budget. In fact, it kind of was. The story behind how the movie was made is as important to the story itself. In an interview the two creators Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot state that the original funding for the film was received through a Kickstarter campaign, where they made a short film that got into Sundance 2015. Following that they by chance met a producer from Plan B and there you have it they have a movie. The sequence to which they got the funding for filming shows how seemingly unconventional the process was, continuing to the actual filming of the movie. For two relatively young men they did it exactly how you would expect. They even reference how in that same opening scene they did not know how to fit both the actors Jimmie and Jonathan (Montgomery) on the skateboard. Problem solving, they called up a buddy who was a skateboarder and helped them make a custom skateboard. In fact, the character Koffee was played by a man who was actually played by a man from San Francisco. Jamal, the actor, they had met at an afterschool program where he was working. After talking to the directors and hearing about the character of koffee he says, “this character is me.” Jamal, the soon to be actor years prior was framed by the San Francisco Police Department for murder and spent several years in prison. Casting, directing, and writing all came from the streets of San Francisco. It was homemade and home grown. Of all the interviews I have watched, the filming process for the movie is filled with little stories like these. This is not your multi million dollar movie with expensive set design, this is two friends trying to tell a story that reflects their lives and their struggles.
Since I first saw the film, it has stuck in my head as one of the films that really made me reflect on the relationship with those I have in my life and the places I call home. Directed and written by the real Jimmie Fails (who plays himself in the film) it is clear that the film was not created for black women, but rather black men. In fact women, black or not, rarely given any screen time. That being said, I found there is so much that I have taken from it, and so much I have learnt about the black men in my life and their vulnerability.
For black men, this narrative of vulnerability is one they often aren’t given. Black men both in film and real life are forced to portray a hard persona. They aren’t given the benefit of the doubt. They aren’t allowed to be emotional, and when they are mad they have to express it in a hyper-masculine form. Films centering black men too often focus on where they fall short with films centered around gang life and prisons. Sure, this is very real for some people but the ways in which it is filmed, with the one sided perspective becomes harmful. For black men, they are expected to keep their chests high and shoulders raised even when the world continues to push them down. The beauty in black men is seen in this movie. The beauty in black male emotion, friendship and vulnerability is put on stage in a way I have never seen done before. In an interview with teh actors/actresses at Sundance, Tichina Arnold says, “They’ve created a piece of artwork that black men can see themselves in many many years to come.”
Also central to this film and why I feel its so important is the relationship between Jimmie and Montgomery. It’s interesting the first time I came to realize the film is truly about friendship, I thought I had come to some fantastic revelation. I thought I had cracked the code, found the key, and opened the door. I thought I was truly enlightened. Unbeknownst to me, this central focus on companionship and friendship was on purpose. Randomly I stumbled upon an interview with the creators, Fails and Talbot, titled: The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an Ode to Male Friendship. So okay, maybe I’m not as brilliant as I thought. I’m also genuinely curious how I missed this. The video is even created by TIFF! I am from Toronto! I saw the movie there! I don’t know how I missed it, but either way that’s besides the point. The relationship between Montgomery and Jimmie is so beautiful and mesmerizing that you don’t know where to place it. One of the first scenes includes them riding a single skateboard together – pushing each other through the city. In fact, this is a metaphor for how the two come to depend on each other throughout the film. They don’t speak very deeply about their emotions – Montgomery is not even aware of the secrets Jimmie keeps until the end of the film. Their relationship is confusing to say the least, and the viewer is given little to no background information on their relationship. The first time I saw the film I wanted so badly to understand their relationship. I wanted so badly to know whether it was romantic or not. Was Montgomery secretly in love with Jimmie? Was Jimmie secretly closeted, and is this why he was so closed off? Many of the reviews I had read after seeing it for the first time pondered these same questions. However, the more I watch, the more those questions dissipated into nonexistence. I was centralizing the wrong parts of their relationship. I was so obsessed with this romanticized vision that I missed what was there: companionship (romantic or platonic) and the importance of it.
Love, as learnt through this film, can be fulfilled and found in every type of relationship. When we think of a love story, we often don’t center it around friendship… but it’s true! We love our friends and we receive so much joy from them, why should we second guess a plot centered around it. And maybe this goes to show that maybe I have to start romanticizing my friendships. It’s interesting how we sometimes overlook the relationships that are the most important to us because they don’t fit into what you expect. Thinking back on this past year, my friends have become my rocks. They’ve been there when I was going through really hard moments and they’ve shown me the importance of companionship. I’m sure everyone has friends like that.
Like a breath of fresh air, The Last Black Man in San Francisco brings a new understanding of the modern day love story to the table. For your next quarantine movie night, sit with your loved ones (whoever that may be) and watch this film.