Starring Jimmie Fails. Rated 14A
The San Francisco this writer grew up with was a multiclass, multiethnic, multigenerational peninsula whose very geography resisted the kind of balkanization we associated with Los Angeles and other spread-out regions. That’s over, of course, with the City by the Bay now a gated community for tech bros and vulture capitalists.
It’s also a place steeped in nostalgia, as evidenced by first-time actor Jimmie Fails, playing himself in a kind of rhapsodic version of his own story.
He wrote The Last Black Man in San Francisco with director Joe Talbot, also making his feature debut (executive-produced by Brad Pitt, no less). And they share a vividly poetic yet clear-eyed view of gentrification, which not only pushes out a neighbourhood’s poorer, darker people, but also erases its history.
Jimmie is a part-time helper at the Emperor Norton Nursing Home (one of many inside–SF jokes, like having Jello Biafra show up as a tour guide), but his real vocation is fixing up the grand old Victorian house he says his grandfather built—much to the consternation of the people who live there.
Best pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) fancies himself a playwright and wears a natty tweed jacket even when working as a fishmonger. Monty lives with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover) in the run-down Hunters Point area, and he sees a Greek chorus of local street toughs as engaged in a kind of performance art.
The beautifully shot movie has its own sense of humour, although the predominant tone (perhaps overstretched at two hours) is elegiac, if not quite mournful.
Beggars sing Italian opera while brass and choral music alternates with Joni Mitchell and Jefferson Airplane tunes on “the final frontier of manifest destiny”, as one street preacher puts it.
Jimmie himself has the final word on life inside the Golden Gate: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”