‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ pays tribute to impossible dreams

Excellent acting propels portrait of city’s culture

Posted 7/17/19

“You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” the actor Jimmie Fails says, while playing the character of Jimmie Fails, in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a film he’s described as “more than 20% autobiographical” in press interviews.

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‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ pays tribute to impossible dreams

Excellent acting propels portrait of city’s culture

Posted

“You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” the actor Jimmie Fails says, while playing the character of Jimmie Fails, in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a film he’s described as “more than 20% autobiographical” in press interviews.

“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” Fails, a young black man, tells two white women of a similar age on the bus (one played by a barely recognizable Thora Birch).

While he’s speaking of the city that he and the film’s director, Joe Talbot, have called their home, this sentiment could be extended to nearly any of the subjects who also feature in their film, because like the city, they each contain multitudes.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” unsparingly depicts the dire consequences of the city’s gentrification, and how it’s only widened the chasm separating its races and economic classes.

It depicts an almost absurd degree of inequity, with a street preacher pointing out at the film’s start that the sanitation workers shuffling around him are wearing full-body hazmat suits to clean up the streets, even though none of the neighborhood’s residents have been supplied so much as a single complimentary face mask to filter the air pollution.

And yet, immediately following the preacher’s literal soap-boxing, we’re treated to a thrilling, whirlwind scene of Jimmie and his best friend, Montgomery “Mont” Allen (played by Jonathan Majors) hopping on the same skateboard together, and riding from their neighborhood into the hustle and bustle of San Francisco proper.

Each scene of outdoor activity they pass on the streets is practically snapshotted with an ultra-slow-motion take, with the urbanites they pass frequently casting askance stares at the two young black men, their feet pushing their shared skateboard forward like rowers moving in unison.

Even with the poverty and other poor conditions that are in evidence in this series of nearly still images, the momentum of this brass horn-accompanied sequence as a whole is an exhilarating collage of the city, until they reach what Jimmie regards as the heart of his San Francisco.

When a child is forced to leave a home where they were happy, it’s only natural that they might go on to mythologize that location as a utopia, even into adulthood, and that’s what Jimmie has done with the upscale Victorian-style house, in the historic Fillmore District, where he lived as a kid.

Jimmie feels such a sense of ownership over the house that he visits it to perform minor renovations, much to the chagrin of its current older white residents, but when a death in those residents’ family throws the legal ownership of the house into question, and forces them to move out, Jimmie sees an opportunity he can’t resist.

Talbot and Fails are intentionally unsubtle about paying a warts-and-all tribute to San Francisco, but what I haven’t seen any other review remark upon is that they’ve created a “Don Quixote” for the 21st Century, with Fails playing himself as the dreamer of the impossible dream, and his best friend Mont stepping up as his faithful Sancho Panza sidekick.

Since Jimmie and Mont are told the house’s legal ownership is likely to be tied up in the courts for years, they simply break in and start fixing the place up.

The unspoken joke is that the two impoverished black men who are living there illegally demonstrate more skill and care in attending to the old house’s upkeep than the affluent white couple who paid to live there ever did, with Jimmie proudly telling anyone who will listen how his grandfather and namesake originally built the house in the 1940s.

Of course, what makes Jimmie’s dream impossible is that he’s living on borrowed time, and sure enough, a house that even he admits is worth at least $4 million in market value is not going to be allowed to lie fallow forever, but as his backstory unfolds, we see why Jimmie clings so strongly to this impossible dream.

Jimmie’s original departure from the house seems to have coincided with his family falling apart.

From what we see of them, Jimmie’s dad makes his living on scams like repackaging bootleg DVDs, and his mom looks to have ghosted him most of his adult life, leaving him to bunk with Mont in the cramped ramshackle house owned by Mont’s blind grandpa (played with effortless charm by Danny Glover).

Aside from Mont, the closest thing Jimmie has to a friend is Kofi (played by Jamal Truelove), who associates with a group of fellow go-nowhere guys, who spend their nights talking trash on street corners and trying to act tough.

The consequences of this lifestyle ultimately catch up with Kofi, leading Jimmie to believe that his family’s house is the only thing saving him from a similar fate, until Mont is able to force his best friend to come to terms with more than one truth he’s been hiding from himself.

As in Miguel Cervantes’ original “Don Quixote,” the true hero of the story is Sancho Panza, the man who knows that his friend’s quest is doomed to failure, but who faithfully sticks with him to see it through to completion nonetheless.

Fails deserves plaudits for a raw, authentic performance that obviously required him to come to terms with a number of his real-life issues, but it’s Jonathan Majors, as the artistic, insightful, enigmatic Mont, who is the standout actor of this film.

It’s never suggested out loud that Mont is autistic, but Majors imbues him with all the “anthropologist from Mars” mannerisms I recognize all too well from seeing them in the mirror.

In addition to being a virtually flawless sketch artist, Mont is an aspiring playwright who spends his days people-watching and mimicking their speech patterns and mannerisms, in an attempt to portray them as authentically as possible.

Mont initially seems to demonstrate some difficulties distinguishing reality from fiction, as when he interrupts an argument between Kofi and his friends to commend them on their “acting.”

However, even this seeming confusion underscores Mont’s vocation as a deeper truth-teller, as when he whispers to Kofi that his performance is “really Method,” thereby hammering home the idea that these young men’s displays of aggression toward each other are nothing more than posturing performances, no more genuinely felt than a stage play.

Mont tolerates the insults that Kofi and his acquaintances throw his way, for being socially awkward and not performatively masculine enough, because he sees more to them than how they try to present themselves, and it prompts Jimmie to recall the compassion Kofi demonstrated in his youth.

Like San Francisco, the young man whom others dismissed, including Jimmie, contained multitudes.

In a film that’s littered with capable veteran actors who are overqualified for their bit parts, from Glover and Birch to Mike Epps and Tichina Arnold, with even Jello Biafra(!) popping up as a Segway-riding tour guide, it’s Majors, a relative newcomer to acting, who outshines them all.

Perhaps my only complaint is that this film seems to share in common a trait of many modern “independent” films, which is that its story doesn’t really resolve itself so much as merely trail off.

Even so, this movie is definitely worth seeing.

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