' ' Cinema Romantico: Last Black Man in San Francisco

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Last Black Man in San Francisco

San Francisco is home to director Joe Talbot and his leading man, Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself, a character named, conspicuously, Jimmie Fails. They grew up together as teenagers, brainstorming the whole time for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It shows, the movie bulging with bits and ideas, as if the two men took notes of every encounter and every experience to be used later, evoked in Mont (Jonathan Majors), best friend of the movie Jimmie, a playwright cataloguing what he sees and who he meets. Talbot and Fails’s film, then, having seen San Francisco slowly take its gentrified shape, becomes both a love letter and a lament, about a man trying to find space for himself in a city squeezing people like him out. As such, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” begins not with an establishing shot of the glittering Golden Gate Bridge but men in hazmat suits cleaning up a contaminated shipyard in Hunter’s Point. Across the way, Jimmie and Mont wait for a bus that won’t come. This is not, however, the enigmatic city transit of “Ghost World” because these two men have some life left in them yet, together boarding Jimmie’s skateboard, a four-wheeled bridge from the Bay’s fringes to its downtown, virtually soaring as the whole populace – coastal cosmopolitans and eccentrics – seem to rise up around them.

This idea of belonging – this idea of where you belong – is paramount. Jimmie and Mont almost seem out of time, living together, sleeping together in the same bedroom, not because they’re in a relationship but more like a less comic version of Laurel and Hardy. Outside, a group of trash-talking males – literally billed as Greek Chorus – loom every time Jimmie and Mont come or go. If this Greek Chorus embodies a rougher kind of masculinity at odds with Jimmie and Mont’s genteel, sad-eyed natures, they are also staking claim to this block, a kind of emotional right of property possession that is deliberately juxtaposed as small scale compared to the overwhelming overall urban displacement.

That displacement is epitomized Jimmie’s old family home in a gentrified neighborhood. Upon first arriving there, Jimmie enters through the vine-covered gate, and a point-of-view shot finds him looking up at the house, toward the turret, bushes on either side of the path framing it, momentarily rendering the Victorian-style architecture as an almost otherworldly wonderland. In a way, it is. Though his family once lived there, it now belongs to a middle-aged white couple who bemusedly stand off to the side and wonder why Jimmie, painting and trimming, is playing maintenance keeper. Indeed, in brief encounters with his father and mother, where something seems to flicker behind Fail’s eyes and then disappear, you sense Jimmie sensing his own sense of history vanishing beneath his feet. If the character feels a little short on lived-in details, almost as if Fails and Talbot know the real person so much they forgot to sculpt a character, this lack of a persona also functions as inadvertent underlining of his overriding fear. Sometimes he hops the back of trucks with his skateboard in tow, evoking Marty McFly, and like Marty McFly was in danger of being erased from history, so too does Jimmie fear his impending erasure.

That’s why when the white couple is forced out of the home, Jimmie and Mont movie right in, squatting since they can’t afford the hefty price tag. Here, they act like kids, shouting at their top of their lungs and talking dreamily of big restorative plans. Home, in other words, becomes an antecedent to the outside world, an idea taking root elsewhere too, like the car where Jimmie’s Uncle Ricky (Mike Epps) lives. That’s an idea steeped in tragedy, though Uncle Ricky has spruced up his vehicle with Christmas lights while Epps’s air emits pride in his wheels. In one scene, late at night, we see him parked near the water when a gunshot echoes off screen. It’s one of several times Talbot alludes to violence without showing it to us, as if home, even if it’s this car, functions like insulation against all the encroaching meanness out there, holding it at bay.

But it can’t be held there forever. Even if Talbot eschews the specifics of gentrification and real estate law, a fatalism permeates the film, like a San Franciscan fog that settles and refuses to dissipate, evinced in an indelible closing shot where we finally see the Golden Gate Bridge, not in its normal splendor but half-shrouded in darkness as Jimmie pulls the oars of a small rowboat toward some unknowable destination. He looks like a refugee in his own city.

No comments: