I live in one of the most segregated parts of the country, similar to San Francisco. As a White woman, and because of the accompanying privilege this brings, I have not had to live the negative realities of redlining and gentrification (among countless other systemic oppressions). Understanding redlining and gentrification as concepts is easy. The harder part is understanding the full consequences that individuals and families experience because of these.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is part fiction, part documentary. Jimmie Fails co-wrote the film, and stars as…Jimmie Fails. Jimmie longs for the old Victorian home that he grew up in — the house that his grandfather built. However, this home is now in an overpriced, White, San Francisco neighborhood. Jimmie cares for the house (while the White owners roll their eyes at him) in such thoughtful detail that you would think it was a work of art. Jimmie’s family, his friends, and his community were all priced out of their neighborhood. Even more heartbreaking is they lost their homes, in some cases, because of the government-produced crack epidemic.
This movie is important…and funny. Sometimes comedy is a more digestible means to get a societal fault to a wider audience. Jimmie Fails is this movie — he is kind and hopeful, but also intense and heartbreaking.
“What if we shouldn’t be here?”
“Who should be here more?”
Jimmie and Mont squat in the home after they find out it is unoccupied. Their hope and excitement about being in this beautiful house is juxtaposed with the other young, Black men who are living in their current neighborhood, appearing tough and arguing on the street corner where they hang out. Mont sees the group of men outside his home as actors in a play, and he interacts with them as if they are in on it. Both Jimmie and Mont have fantastic dreams of either a community of the past or of a created, and therefore controllable, world.
We have all heard the term, but now more than ever, we need to understand what gentrification really means and what happens to these neighborhoods. In this beautiful film, there are happy moments in Jimmie’s quiet hope, but we are brought on the entire journey with him. We see fake concern from a White real estate agent, a segway tour of White looky-loos learning the history of the (Japanese then Black) neighborhood, among other instances of White people acting as though they care, or even worse, understand. We even see the banks deny a loan to Jimmie because he doesn’t have enough income, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. It is a lesson in the danger and uselessness of false allyship.
There’s No Place Like Home
Why does Jimmie insist on taking such good care of this house? Jimmie explains it was built by his great-grandfather after World War II. The house is amazing — intricate and beautiful. On the surface, the entire plot of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about Jimmie getting this house back. As Jimmie climbs closer to this goal, his father who once occupied the house with him, is the first to shut down his dream. The quietness of Jimmie’s heartbreak with his father is then met with a party trolley of young professionals drunkenly mocking a man at the bus stop. The city has changed.
Still, Jimmie views the house as his savior; it has kept him from dealing drugs with his former group of friends. Jimmie’s father and mother had abandoned him, but the house was a constant. The house is a refusal to abide by the disenfranchisement of his family, and of Black people in his city.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is honest, above all else. The viewer is made aware of the effect of a history, that many of us have conveniently ignored, on individuals and their history. The film is beautifully shot and has heart. Then the chips start to fall.
We see the tough-talking men show real emotion when one of their friends is killed. We learn that the story of the house, Jimmie’s sole source of pride, was a lie.
Mont writes and performs a play about the slain friend, which morphs into a memorial. “People aren’t one thing,” Jimmie states during the memorial. That is one major message I took from this film: People are not one thing: not their race, gender, or past. These are just parts of the whole; and the problem comes when others only see one part. Jimmie’s focus is only on the house — the one thing about his life that he made him feel special, and like so many other things, it has let him down.
The memorial then evolves into an intervention. “Give us the courage to see beyond the stories we were born into. You exist beyond these walls. You extend beyond your forefathers. Jimmie, you are not these walls!” yells the usually subdued Mont.
The ending has much less humor and much more emotion. I can’t bring myself to spoil it in this article. I encourage you to watch it for yourself.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s characters are well-rounded, fully flushed and complex in the most quiet, unassuming way. This is a Black man navigating through the boundaries put on him by the system because of his race. Jimmie needed a goal and somewhere to belong. He needed focus. He needed to fight against the oppression put on him by society. With all the hurdles and assumptions put on them as Black men in America, Jimmie and Mont have each other. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a love story between these friends, an unrequited love story of a city, and a personal perspective of the effects of systemic racism.
Written by Sarah Erskine