The Last Man In San Francisco is about so many things, I hardly know where to begin — except, perhaps, the subtext that pervades every part of it, which is the gentrification of San Francisco, particularly to its exclusion of low-income, nonwhite people.
It’s a bit of a cliche now to call the city where a film is set “is also a character,” but San Francisco definitely qualifies here. It’s a somewhat curious experience to see this movie while still in the middle of the current season of Tales of the City on Netflix, which very much tries to do the same thing with San Francisco — only in the series’ case, it’s through a queer lens. In this movie’s case, it’s through a black lens.
There is a scene in the first episode of the current Tales of the City in which a cab driver is keeping his pet turtle in the passenger seat. I found myself feeling very skeptical about it: could San Francisco, with all its homogenized gentrification, really still be that commonly weird? Well, there’s a scene in The Last Man in San Francisco where the protagonist, Jimmie Fails (played by . . . Jimmie Fails), is sitting in a bus stop. This older white man, stark naked, meanders into frame, sets down a tissue on the bench, and sits on the other side of the bus shelter, apparently also just waiting for the bus. A cable car full of frat bro partiers pulls up next to them for a minute, and once it pulls away again, the naked man says, “This city, man!” Totally unfazed by the white guy’s nakedness, Jimmie just replies, with a wistful look in his eyes, “Tell me about it, bro!”
In both of these examples, the sentiment is basically the same: “This city, man!” — people exasperated by the changes wrought upon the city they love. There is some irony, too, in the sentiment being expressed by the very people who are clearly keeping the city plenty weird.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is directed, incidentally, by Joe Talbot — a white man, offering his feature directorial debut. Still, its direction is unusually confident and assured for a debut. Also, he and Jimmie Fails grew up together in San Francisco, and receive co-credit for writing the story. Fails plays a fairly aimless as well as obsessive young man who stays in the house of his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), and Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover). Montgomery is an accessory to Jimmi’s truly eccentric crimes, all of which are tired to his obsession with the Victorian house he lived in for a time as a child. The house’s current occupants, an upper-middle-aged white couple, are bemused by Jimmie’s insistence on coming by when they’re not around to do upkeep on the house, such as gardening or painting the trim.
This truly gorgeous house is as much a character in its own right as San Francisco is. A huge portion of the story takes place inside or around it, as when the house is unexpectedly vacated, Jimmie and Montgomery move all of Jimmie’s belongings in, and basically become squatters.
The lore behind this house is a big part of the story, with Jimmie often repeating that it was actually built by his grandfather in the forties, having been regarded by locals at the time as “The first black man in San Francisco.” Jimmie’s family is complicated, and I do wish more details about them were revealed. His father sells knockoff DVDs. His mother, seen only once when Jimmy happens to run into her on a city bus, seems relatively affluent in her own right, but there is the sense she hasn’t even seen him since well before he became an adult. Why? We never find out. His aunt (Tichina Arnold, really maximizing what few scenes she’s in), lives outside of town now, in a place she can afford.
There is much more at play going on, and every part of The Last Man of San Francisco, gorgeously shot by Adam Newport-Berra in a way that makes the film more art than drama, is dense with layers of meaning. It is both totally absorbing, and feels like something that could be studied in college film courses. It contains multitudes of fascinating narrative choices, not least of which is the heavy focus on the intimate friendship between Jimmie and Montgomery, to the exclusion of any apparent romance in either of their lives. The closest we get to romance, in fact, is a couple of slightly comic looks of lust on Auntie Wanda’s face as she watches her husband skateboarding in the street.
This is a film that pulls off the trick of universal themes via ultra-specific viewpoints. The gentrification subtext is a familiar one to me; I feel like a lot of the people I know could make a similar movie called The Last Gay Man in Seattle. Except the dispersal of queer people from Seattle is nowhere near as dire as people like to characterize it, and I could not trust anyone I know to make a film of this quality. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a less hardened, much more wistful and contemplative companion piece to last year’s excellent Blindspotting, its own subtext largely being the gentrification of the city across the Bay, Oakland. Those two movies would perhaps make a great double feature.
In any case, The Last Man in San Francisco is a unique experience, even as it is a treatise on a lot of well-trod cultural conversations. It’s not to be missed.