I Will Never Be Able To Forget ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’
Its significance and resonance is only growing
The concept of “home” is tricky for some people to define. This is especially the case for those who have undergone the very modern plight of being priced out of their place of origin. More and more, major cities are becoming unlivable for the working class. Coastal American cities are some of the biggest heartbreakers in this department.
San Francisco, in particular, is a source of much anguish, especially for longstanding families of color. My own family was priced out of the city years ago. Though we’ve tried to move back since, it never ends up working out. Every time I go back to visit, something is still beautifully the same, while many other things are different in ways that make me just want to cry. Driverless Teslas haunt neighborhoods that have been utterly battered by the effects of gentrification. You’ll pass by newcomers in the tech industry who only have bad things to say about the city: the weather, the smell, the traffic, whatever. And though you’ll do your best to park your car somewhere innocuous and leave nothing (literally nothing) inside, you’ll still probably find your window smashed in. Loving this city is hard, and I’ve told myself I hate it many, many times.
Yet the 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco has changed my mind permanently. Now, as I find myself at a crossroads in my life trying to decide where I want to be, who I want to be, and what I want to do with myself, it feels more relevant than ever.
What happens in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’?
Spoilers for The Last Black Man In San Fransisco below!
The film follows Jimmie Fails, a lifelong resident of the city, who spends his days fussing over a Victorian home in the Fillmore with his best friend, Mont. This is the home he grew up in, yet was eventually forced to move out of. It’s a classic San Francisco Victorian, surrounded by lush greenery that’s been there for years. An older white couple lives there and often takes issue with Jimmie, who will come over uninvited and trim the hedges for them. But Jimmie just wishes they’d take better care of the house.
Eventually, even that couple is forced to vacate, and they suddenly find themselves in a dispute with relatives over who gets to keep the house. This proves to be a golden opportunity for Jimmie and Mont. The pair take up residence in the home temporarily, as the realtor believes it may be vacant for several years. They move various pieces of furniture into the home and spend many intimate moments taking in the things about it which make it special: the old, dark wood; the stained-glass windows; the little nooks and crannies. You can see Jimmie completely at peace in this space he loved so dearly as a child.
There’s more to it than that, though. Jimmie maintains that this house was built by his grandfather in 1946, despite what some local tour guides and experts say. To him, it’s more than just a house: it’s part of his very blood. By extension, it becomes the life force for his immediate community, especially with the help of Mont’s creative endeavors.
Of course, we don’t live in a world where the things we love come easily to us. So there are multiple setbacks on Jimmie’s path. It turns out the realtor was just humoring Jimmie and Mont. One day, they arrive at the house to find their furniture has been kicked to the curb, with a big “SOLD” sign out front. Furious, Jimmie brings it all back in. He resolves to try and rebuy the house at the bank. But Mont goes back to the realtor to learn the truth about the house’s origins. As it turns out, it wasn’t built by Jimmie’s grandfather after all. It was built in the 1850s.
The last straw, Jimmie’s last bid, occurs during a play Mont hosts in the attic of the home, which various characters in their lives attend. The play is meant to honor the death of their childhood friend, Kofi, whom they were just beginning to reconnect with (in the house, no less). At the end of the play, Mont exposes Jimmie, just wanting to put this all to rest. But the thing is, Jimmie knew all along that this house wasn’t built by his grandfather.
So why did Jimmie maintain the illusion? Why did he pretend, even at the cost of his happiness? Because loving a city that much, and being unable to let go of it, will do that to you. You watch as you lose your home, and you feel powerless to stop it. So, you do what you can to do just that: stop it. Jimmie had every reason to grow bitter and angry when things didn’t work out. Instead, he doubles down on his love for the city, saying one of the most impactful lines I’ve ever heard in cinema: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
How the film hits home
The thing that makes this movie unforgettable is all the love it wants to convey. Everything, from its portraits of the city to the way it portrays Blackness, radiates a sense of love and a strong willingness to love. Most heartbreakingly, it ends where love becomes too tiresome to continue, as Jimmie leaves Mont and his grandfather and sails off (literally) to who knows where. He’s so tired of trying to make this work. Without the home to look towards, he’s adrift.
I’d like to think that, unlike some interpretations, this ending doesn’t mean Jimmie’s life is literally over. He’s just where many of us, including myself, are finding ourselves: in need of a new home, and ready to let go of the past and find it. No, it’s not fair, especially for Black families who are increasingly finding it difficult to live in major metropolitan areas in the United States. It shouldn’t have to be this way. Hopefully, affordable housing will be made more accessible in our lifetime.
In the meantime, I am so grateful that this movie exists. It serves to prove to us that these things are happening in the world, to the people and cities we love. Just because we may have to let go, it doesn’t mean the love goes away. How could it? We’re part of the history of the places we call home. We’ve helped shape it. Whether we want to or not, whether we mean to or not, we have left our marks. Nobody can take that from us.
(Featured Image: A24)
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