Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) needs to find a place to exist in Joe Talbot's striking debut film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The house he grew up in is now owned by a white couple. They do not take kindly to his presence around the outside of their home, even though he touches up paint and waters the plants. For Jimmie, the house is everything. His identity is wrapped up in it. He is being pushed to the edges, no longer able to find a place he wants because all he wants is this home.
Gentrification is at the core of this film but so is identity. The film connects place and a sense of belonging to Jimmie's core identity. San Francisco is changing around him. In one memorable moment from the film, Jimmie is at a bus stop when an elderly nude man joins him to wait for the bus. Initially the scene elicits a laugh but the film slyly changes the tone when a party bus pulls up full of drunk millennials who point and gawk at the nude man. Both men share a brief moment relating to each other's woes of what has become of their home.
Much of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is spent on Jimmie and his best friend and aspiring playwright Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) as they figure out how to get Jimmie's family home for themselves. When the owners lose their house, Jimmie and Montgomery move in as squatters and begin to fix the place up. We learn the this house was built by Jimmie's grandfather. The neighborhood had been Japanese before the internment camps after Pearl Harbor. Jimmie's grandfather was the first black man in San Francisco according to local lore.
Jimmie is estranged from most of his family. His father lost the house due to drugs. His mother, as we learn in a brief but heartbreaking scene, doesn't really want to see him. Jimmie and Montgomery are outsiders from the other young black men the film presents. They are thuggish where Jimmie and Montgomery love art and literature. The two of them share a moving friendship throughout the film that is tested as Jimmie holds dearly onto the house he doesn't own.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a striking and poetic film, both narratively and visually. This parable of estrangement feels like something fresh and new thanks to the magic that is created by director Joe Talbot, actor Jimmie Fails and their co-writer Rob Richert. Fails, in particular, gives a standout performance. It is one of the best of the year and so is the film.