VOICES OF COLOR

A gripping film about San Francisco’s Black working class

Partial view of a shop window. A yellow sign with black print that reads
A sign in a shop window in San Francisco's Mission District. PHOTO: Jason Tester
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When The Last Black Man in San Francisco showed up as a film project to support on Kickstarter, I was drawn in. The city’s dwindling Black population has been a concern to me as a native San Franciscan, so I immediately contributed. I don’t always love movies about my hometown because they don’t highlight stories about working-class people. Most films use the city as a set and leave it at that. It’s rare to see films about San Francisco by people who understand the struggles workers have to survive here.

An honest perspective. This film’s fantastic and sympathetic depictions of a San Francisco not often portrayed in film are brought together in a way that showcases a native’s understanding of a city in thrall to the desires of the new elite.

The plot centers around Jimmie, a San Franciscan who keeps up his family’s old home and decides to live in the building after its current occupants are themselves evicted. His friend Montgomery works to create his one-man show, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” as they navigate their place in a city that’s pushing them out.

This film works because of the director and the lead actor’s direct connection with San Francisco. Director Joe Talbot, a white man, grew up in the then predominantly Latino Mission District. Writer/actor Jimmie Fails, a Black man, grew up in the predominantly Black Fillmore District. They met as teenagers and bonded over a shared love of filmmaking.

Born out of conversations they had while walking around in Bernal Heights and mutual experiences as misfits, their film depicts events from Fails’ real life in a way that is honest and never feels exploitative. We are never disconnected from his story. This springs from the working-class solidarity between Talbot and Fails, their deep understanding of each other’s lives, and their shared love of a city that doesn’t make it easy for folks like them to live.

Community is central to the struggle. The heart of this movie is love of family, friends and community. Our main characters express this love in ways that Black men in media are rarely permitted. They display fondness for each other as friends who value each other’s dreams. Jimmie desires to hold onto his family’s house as a symbol of better times. His family’s eviction spread his loved ones across the Bay Area — into cars, SROs, and more affordable homes — and is emblematic of his mourning the loss of his family and community.

Montgomery’s tenderness in working with the elderly, and in eulogizing a character who in another film might have been depicted only as a one-dimensional antagonist who harasses the primary characters, is fleshed out by those who knew him to be a sweet gentleman who walked children home after school and defended the main character from childhood bullies. These depictions — so rare in cinema — allow the Black men in this movie to be full, complex and compelling characters.

Making the uncomfortable fantastical yet normal. To those who love San Francisco, it can feel like loving someone with a sickness that has altered their personality. That sickness is on full display in this film which discusses historic wrongs: for example, San Francisco’s hostility towards marginalized groups trying to build communities — be they Japanese people whose homes and businesses were stolen because they were put in internment camps, or Black people being pushed to live in toxic areas like the Hunter’s Point Shipyards.

The Last Black Man humanely depicts itinerant folks who feel love for their city even though they are houseless. It also showcases these horrors in more surreal ways with alien-looking workers in hazmat suits and mutated fish caught off Hunters Point, a toxic Superfund Cleanup site that is still contaminated.

The film exposes the reality of the developers and speculators who profit from San Francisco’s boom and bust cycles. It’s fairly revolutionary in that this capitalist sickness is depicted both as choices made by individual people, and as systemic.

The real estate agent character lies to the protagonists, throws their belongings into the street and immediately seeks to enrich himself from selling the house Jimmie is trying to reclaim. When asked to explain his betrayal, the agent acts as if it is better that he, a smaller developer who knows Jimmie, is a lesser evil, despite the end result being exactly the same.

This story about one man’s desire to restore his home and community exposes the layers of systemic racism against marginalized groups. Through his efforts, Jimmie gives us hope that the city he knows and loves is worth fighting for.

Today, there are Black city workers who are organizing against racism and sexism on the job and contracting out. They know that union jobs with regular pay raises enable them to stay in San Francisco. Other activists are fighting against evictions and for affordable housing. Jimmie’s vision is indeed a shared one.

Comments? Questions? Send feedback to the author at kristinaelee@gmail.com.

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