In 2015, a couple of economists coined a term to describe the decline in life expectancy among middle-aged white Americans due to elevated rates of suicide, drug use and alcoholism. They called these untimely deaths, which they tied to a lack of opportunity among whites lacking a college degree, “deaths of despair.”
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which opens in theaters Friday, is not about working-class white people. But it is very much about despair that’s not so different from that described by the economists.
The film, directed by Joe Talbot and written by Talbot and Rob Richert, tells the story of actor Jimmie Fails, who plays a version of himself in the film. Jimmie has been crashing on the bedroom floor of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), for some time as he tries to stake a claim on a multilevel Victorian house in San Francisco that his grandfather once owned. His father, Jimmie Fails Sr. (Rob Morgan), eventually lost it, and Jimmie Jr.’s childhood became pockmarked by lack and uncertainty.
The house, now worth several millions of dollars, is occupied by an older white woman who doesn’t treat it with the regard Jimmie believes it deserves. So he makes surreptitious improvements — trimming hedges, touching up paint — to honor both the house and his grandfather, who supposedly built it at the turn of the 20th century.
Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B with A24 and Talbot’s company Longshot Features, The Last Black Man in San Francisco joins Jimmie and Monty at a crucial point: The woman who lives in the Fails house is forced to move out because of family circumstances, and before it can go on the market, Jimmie occupies the property he believes is rightfully his, even though he has no money and no deed. Instead, Jimmie has righteousness and lore on his side — until he doesn’t. Capitalism holds no romance or respect for moral abstractions; only financial assets are revered, and Jimmie has next to none.
The Last Black Man appears to be a story about robbery via gentrification in one of the American capitals of income inequality, and it is. But it’s more than that. Stories about gentrification are also stories about the loss of identity, about the loss of the place a set of people once called home.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a scab to pick off a bigger wound.
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Monty and the needy curmudgeon Grandpa Allen (played by Danny Glover in one of the best performances of his career) live across the street from Bayview-Hunters Point, an area that is a case study in environmental racism. The movie opens with a shot of a little black girl, no more than 6 or 7, in a dress skipping along the same stretch of street being traversed by a man in a hazmat suit. Jimmie and Monty are well aware of how race has affected their tenuous positions in society. Such inequality wallpapers their lives. Set off with a Greek chorus of neighborhood ne’er-do-wells who congregate outside the Allen house, the script for The Last Black Man in San Francisco dances with wit, tragedy and originality. It’s punctuated by the kinetic photography of Adam Newport-Berra, whose shots of Jimmie and Monty sharing a skateboard through San Francisco’s steep grades and curving blacktops simultaneously invite snickers and awe.
Jimmie isn’t mourning the fact that drunken tech bros in a chaperoned party trolley pollute the city he loves with obscene chants directed at a nude hippie waiting for the bus. (It’s one of my favorite scenes because of the way it cheekily illustrates how definitions of normalcy are relative.) Jimmie’s despair comes from realizing that the option to participate in a key aspect of the American tradition may have never really existed for him. He’s lost out on the opportunity to homestead a new existence, to create his own myth and live it until what’s true and what’s family lore blends into a triumphant, interesting-at-cocktail-parties truthiness.
Before he moved in with Monty and Grandpa Allen, Jimmie was homeless, and before that, he was a ward of the state. Jimmie’s mother is a former drug addict with whom he barely communicates. James Sr., also in recovery, is a grifter who sells bootleg movies to pay his rent in a single room occupancy building. No wonder Jimmie wants to look back a generation in search of a better story, one that puts him in the lineage of a builder of a Victorian masterpiece and injects some greatness into his veins.
It’s a beautiful, unexpected sort of greatness too, because it’s wrapped up in antique furniture and sunlight streaming through lace curtains. Greatness, for Jimmie, is preserved in a time warp.
In this light, we can see all the complementary aspects of Jimmie’s friendship with Monty, the one man in the world fluent in Jimmie’s particular language of weird. Monty’s a playwright who copes with real life by pretending that he’s actually directing it, a man who hoards old playbills and dresses like an East Coast humanities professor. Once you see past Monty’s surface-level strangeness — and he is, by every objective measure, awfully odd — you see a man who worships the promise and magic of created worlds and their ability to transport as they tell the truth.
When tragedy rocks their world, it’s no wonder that Monty’s grand gesture as he tries to save his closest friend involves staging a play about their lives. It honors Jimmie’s current life but also reminds him that there’s still hope of creating a new one.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an exquisite dirge for the loss of a city, of home, of community. But most of all, it mourns the loss of possibility, and for some that load is just too heavy to bear.