Home Film People, Places, and Gentrification in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

People, Places, and Gentrification in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

by Beatrine Shahzad

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a homage to a place almost as much as it is a story of a man. The semi-biographical film centers around Jimmie Fails, a young black man who was raised in his grandfather’s Victorian home in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. Although much of Jimmie’s backstory is based on actual events, the real Fails stars in a fictional tale about the meaning of a home. In the film, Jimmie’s life went into a downward spiral at a young age after his family lost their beloved house. As a result of the methodical eviction, he was forced to resort to group homes and even living out of a car. The complex adoration Jimmie holds for the city leads to a tug-of-rope with a system trying to steamroll forward regardless of who, or what, it leaves behind. An ambivalent relationship used to explore the nuances within the broader issue of gentrification.

San Francisco is displayed through the eyes of Fails, and as such, the city is almost personified. The warm color palette creates a comforting atmosphere; each frame captures the city’s historic beauty and uniquely elevated landscape as if they were carefully crafted paintings. The original score is one of a kind with its romantic, regal, and nostalgic characteristics. Its foundation is gentle, reedy woodwinds and piano set the tone while brass or strings occasionally layer the music with an energetic quality. The characters poke fun at the city’s one of a kind eccentricities, but despite its faults, there is a fondness for it –“ You don’t get to hate it unless you love it”.

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Courtesy of A24

At the onset of the film, Jimmie lives in the home of his best friend’s grandfather near the outskirts of San Francisco. Although Jimmie is close to his best friend and roommate, Montgomery (Mont for short), he does not feel like he truly belongs. The memory of the house he grew up in and its city consumes him. Against the will of the home’s new residents, Fails consistently attempts small renovations out of his own time and pocket with particular attention to detail. The current tenants love the home, but they demand that Jimmie leave, although this does little to deter his desperation. He even considers offering his service as a live-in caretaker for the home, to the residents who see him as a nuisance. Anything for a chance to properly care for and reside in the home.

Jimmie’s main concern is that without him, the key characteristics that make the house beautiful and unique will be plastered over, ruined, or replaced. The relationship between him and the home would be mutually beneficial, a place of belonging for an inhabitant that fosters its well being – if it weren’t for the fact that it is practically impossible for Jimmie to own the home and he is unwanted otherwise. Suddenly, the residents lose ownership after a death in the family. While the tenants have to leave against their will, it is a matter of inheritance and squabbling between those who believe the house is theirs. While Jimmie’s family was also forced out of the home, they lived in it together at the time of their eviction and even with their combined will, they lost it. In the case of being ejected from the house, there is a clear contrast in the level of privilege. If the current family collectively worked together out of respect for the house as a part of a community that should be preserved rather than merely a monetary asset, they could have kept it. And after they leave, they have somewhere else to go. After the house is empty, the universe seemingly gives Jimmie a chance.

Jimmie consults with a realtor who tells him that the house will probably be uninhabited for years, a fate many houses in the city face. High rent costs and red tape contribute to a number of empty houses as those who cannot afford a place to live sleep on the street. Jimmie collects his grandfather’s old furniture and begins to illegally squat in the house while simultaneously fixing it up. His partner in crime, Mont, helps him throughout this endeavor. 

them looking at the house
Courtesy of A24

The effects of gentrification could not be more defined than in the opening scene. It also encompasses all the ingredients to convey a simple love of San Francisco, highlighting the complicated relationship between a beautiful city where it falls short. Jimmie and Mont wait at a bus stop at the edge of the city, near a toxic dock where men in hazmat suits are surveying the situation. A man in a tailored suit stands across from the stop, preaching about the dangers of living where the inhabitants are not valued. Unwilling to wait for the bus, the pair decide to skate into the heart of the city. The music swells as the preacher’s message continues. 

As they skate down the iconic slopes, the focus shifts on the people they pass. Primarily black people and other people of color at first – laughing with each other, selling paintings, and going about their day. The preacher’s continued narration creates a tonal shift as he discusses how the city is being rebuilt, “half in the past, half in the future”. The camera then focuses on white, preoccupied young professionals backdropped by the poverty that plagues downtown San Francisco. Now the traditional building blocks of the city are highlighted – not the high rises of downtown, but the old homes. The preacher’s narration mentions how “we” built the city, “we” being the black residents and other minorities who established the town’s prominence. They were forced to the outskirts once the incoming residents decided they wanted something new. It’s a physical representation of a marginalized community, a group of people pushed to the peripheral and not recognized as integral. While their legacy is beautiful and their contributions are essential, they are forgotten.

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In the 90s, most of the big technology companies found their footing in Silicon Valley, south of the bay. Young professionals flocked to the surrounding urban areas for the chance to live in the big city while working for a cutting edge company. As the real estate and cost of living steeply continued to climb, it became increasingly difficult for the established populations to continue to live there, thus giving gentrification the anchor to leech off the urban centers of the Bay Area. The homeless population of San Francisco in 2019 was recorded to reach 17,595 as reported by The New York Times. Meanwhile, there are around 11,760 vacant homes in the city based on new Census information as reported by The Mercury News.

This does not even convey the entire issue, because many who lose their homes in San Francisco are forced to leave and end up occupying the streets of nearby cities. Oakland, the city across the bay to the east, saw a 47% increase in its homeless population between 2018 and 2019 according to the city. Raising awareness for this issue and requesting relevant legislation be passed is Moms4Housing, an organization started in Oakland by working-class homeless mothers after making national news by squatting in a vacant home. When Jimmie chooses to squat in his empty childhood home in the film, it is not an isolated issue. Many face similar threats and Jimmie’s story is just one example.

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Courtesy of A24

As the story continues, Mont illuminates the narrative as a foil to Jimmie. While Jimmie clings to the past San Francisco he remembers, Mont lives in the present. He’s an artist who sees things for what they are. When asked what room he wants in the house, Mont chooses the dining room. Unconventional, like he is, but he notices its potential hidden in the obvious, the artwork on the ceiling that people rarely notice. Similarly, he is able to look past the crude exterior of those who are deemed “delinquents” by society and see their value as people, just as he once did with Fails when they first met. 

Mont jots down his observations and captures the likeness of the world around him in a journal. His goal: write a play about Kofi, one of the loiterers in his neighborhood. Mont is further determined to finish this play when Kofi is tragically killed in a shooting midway through the story. While Jimmie and Kofi were not particularly close, they spent some time in a group home together, and Jimmie shares that if it weren’t for the house – he would have fallen into the same trap as Kofi. It could have easily been him. Mont sees the danger in Kofi’s story, so he plans to bring awareness to the societal boxes people are trapped in, particularly black men, through his play. He still continues to help Jimmie, though, because he knows the value of the house goes beyond positive childhood associations.

Growing up, Jimmie was told that his grandfather was the self-proclaimed “first black man in San Francisco” since he came to the city in the 1940s and constructed the house himself. He wanted to build something of his own instead of occupying the other homes in the district that were vacant due to the forceful evictions of the Japanese tenants during the World War II internment. Because of the history of the home, it would be wrong to deny Jimmie what he works so fervently to preserve. Mont tells Jimmie that people would want to buy the house because it is beautiful, but Jimmie is the reason that is so. There is a sense of righteousness to this assertion, that it’s only fair for Jimmie to keep his family’s legacy alive.

mont
Courtesy of A24

Jimmie and Mont’s renovations reach a halt when the same local realtor they consulted with earlier puts the house for sale, throwing all of Jimmie’s belongings to the curb. Jimmie, in a huff, goes to the bank and pleads for a loan, promising anything for enough to buy the house. Mont cites the story of Jimmie’s grandfather when confronting the realtor of this injustice. The realtor in return reveals the original deed, proving this backstory to be fabricated. The house was built in the 1850s along with every other home on the street. The realtor explains that if he did not go for the house, someone else would. Mont silently realizes that the blame is not to be placed on one person, but an entire system. The previous owners loved the house. The realtor loves the city and is just doing his job. The house is simply just going through phases – it is out of their hands even if they helped beautify it.

Jimmie is not willing to move on despite being denied the loan – physically, mentally, nor emotionally. He unwillingly tells Mont that he is the only one from his family left in the city. His aunt lives in the suburbs and his father is trapped in low-income housing where he is known for scheming. This is why he is the last black man in San Francisco, Jimmie is the last remnant of the city’s original culture. He cannot leave because he has nowhere else to go. Unlike Mont, he is willfully blind to the system working against him.

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Mont, recognizing that this pressure will only continue to tear Jimmie apart, decides to publicly reveal the house’s true history during his play performed at the makeshift theater on the top story of the home. The ultimate memory of Kofi functions as a plea for Jimmie to detach his identity from the building. He needs to come to terms with the fact that his grandfather did not build the house; he only held onto the story because it provided a much-needed right to feel belonged. People are multifaceted. While Kofi was more than a loiterer, his decision to choose the streets led him to his demise. Jimmie chose the house, but that is only marginally better. He has forced himself in a box, the obsession with reclaiming the house, and it will do to him what it did to Kofi.

The truth does not fully settle in until Jimmie asks his father to admit it as well. When his father refuses and instead supports the false narrative, Jimmie catches a glimpse of his future if he persists retracing old steps instead of finding his own path, being stuck in a place where he is not valued. His aunt tells him that he still has a chance to leave the city, and if he does it will be San Francisco’s loss.

sunset
Courtesy of A24

So Jimmie leaves. Mont wakes up to see a letter thanking him for his friendship and he decides to visit Jimmie’s old home alone during an open house. He sees past the cheap modern accessories meant to sell a future tenant on the aesthetic of their forever home. Buying a house is not permanent and the open house itself is proof of that. As one last good-spirited joke, Mont hides in a hidden cupboard behind a bookcase and jumps out to scare some interested buyers. While the buyers enjoy the aesthetic and the beauty of the home, they will never see or recognize the hidden quirks – not in the same way as someone who breathed life into it.

The last shot of the film is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. Jimmie rows a small boat across the bay at sunrise, uncertain to start a new life. The city is bathed in golden light and just as it is sorrowful to see Jimmie leave a place he loved so dearly, it’s just as sorrowful for San Francisco to lose a piece of itself. San Francisco is defined not merely by the people who live in it, but those who helped build it and kept its culture alive. As a result, Jimmie’s departure changed San Francisco. He is the last black man in San Francisco because without him it is not that San Francisco anymore. Just like Jimmie had a symbiotic relationship with the house, he kept its old spirit alive and it gave him a place he felt welcome, the city and those who helped build are a part of a larger interaction. One that cannot be changed without the other feeling its effects. That is the larger danger of gentrification. Without those who make San Francisco what it is, the marginalized people that are the backbone of the city, its soul is lost.

You can watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco on Prime Video!

Follow writer Beatrine Shahzad on Twitter: @beyabean

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