It's difficult to distill the emotional urgency and near ecstatic beauty of "The Last Black Man in San Francisco." But one exchange offers a glimpse. After years of looking in from the outside, Jimmie Fails finally finds himself back inside the home his grandfather built but that his family later lost. “What if we shouldn’t be here,” he asks his friend Montgomery. “Who should be here more?” his friend replies.
The question lingers.
“When a family sees the neighborhood around it changing dramatically, when their friends are leaving the neighborhood, when the stores they patronize are liquidating and new stores for other clientele are taking their places, and when changes in public facilities, in transportation patterns, and in support services all clearly are making the area less and less livable, then the pressure of displacement already is severe.” This was written more than 30 years ago by Columbia University planning professor Peter Marcuse addressing gentrification in New York City.
In his analysis, he described the many ways gentrification pushed people out: last-resident displacement, chain displacement, exclusionary displacement and displacement pressure. Recognizing all four as part of gentrification underscored the fact that it “affects more than those actually displaced at any given moment.”
Without saying as much, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" takes up these and other issues on an intimate scale. Fails plays himself and has said that the story, which follows his efforts to reclaim his grandfather’s house in a now transformed Fillmore, is “emotionally true.” Not the first film to confront neighborhood change — indeed some of the notable films, like Barry Jenkins’ "Medicine for Melancholy," are also set in the Bay Area — what this film offers is a particularly poignant exploration of the emotional burden, not just of being shut out of the one place that feels like home, but of serving as the custodian of family and community history.
For much of the film, directed by Fails' friend Joe Talbot, we believe, as Jimmie does, that his searching is about this house that he surreptitiously tends to even though his family no longer owns it and a white couple now lives there. We journey with him as he and his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) venture from the Hunters Point-Bayview home where they stay with Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover) perched above a toxic bay to the gentrified neighborhood he once called home where he paints the windowsills and frets over the garden while his friend watches. We wait for good news while Jimmie pleads with realtors and mortgage lenders after the couple who had been living there is forced out over estate squabbles. We run triumphantly from room to room when Jimmie finally gets back inside before he fills it with all of his grandfather’s old belongings, stored away thanks to his aunt (Tichina Arnold).
In California, Jimmie’s plan to reclaim the home through squatting isn’t as far-fetched as it might be in other states. There, people who occupy vacant homes can seek adverse possession. But it takes years to secure. Jimmie’s efforts are a quixotic fight, one that the viewer — and surely Jimmie — knows is bound to fail. Not just because his claims to the home are tenuous in the eyes of the real estate world but because his return to the neighborhood is akin to stepping into a river.
Between 1980 and 2017, the black population in the Fillmore’s core census tract went from 86 percent to 35 percent. In 2013, Fails wrote in Caribbean Today that seeing another African-American in the park where “young black kids from the neighborhood would hang out” was now “so rare that in the unusual case you do, the two of you are almost required to acknowledge each other when you pass by, with an awkward head nod or maybe even an, ‘Alright now, brotha.’”
The details of how his on-screen family lost the house and how they ended up where they are now are, like the city itself, foggy. Since living in the Victorian, Jimmie spent time squatting with his dad, living in a group home and in a car before moving in with Montgomery and his grandfather. His father stays in an SRO building. His mother reappears, seemingly materializing out of the shifting fog itself, on a bus seated across from Jimmie, who learns she’s been back in the city for a few months now. His aunt stays well outside the city, in a sunny-skied home with her skateboarding partner. But one thing seems as solid as the house itself: Jimmie’s grandfather built the house in 1946. It’s a fact repeated throughout the film. In one scene after Jimmie has reclaimed the now empty house and stands triumphant on the balcony, he corrects a Segway-riding tour guide down on the street who insists the home was built almost a century earlier.
For Fails, his grandfather’s home stood as a reminder of what was lost. Like his on-screen self, Fails lived briefly in a Victorian house with his family. His family lost the home and he bounced around much like Jimmie, still feeling drawn back to it. “What hurts the most,” he wrote in Caribbean Today, “is walking past the old house that my grandfather built, and seeing it occupied by a white family who gave it the most hideous paint job on the block and probably remodeled the inside as well.”
“This alone is part of the reason I no longer feel at home in the Fillmore,” he continued, “let alone any part of San Francisco.”
In East Austin, a study of longtime residents who stayed in the neighborhood despite rapid transformation cited a loss of community, rising property taxes and an overall negative perception of the changes. “I don’t know who they are, what they do,” said one resident. “I know a few but everybody is a total stranger.” Amid an onslaught of calls and letters from realtors pressuring longtime residents to sell, another resident laid of the stakes: “Believe me,” she said, “this is ancestral land. Blacks in Austin, we were raised in East Austin. If we leave Austin, we can’t trace our family.”
The emotion is exquisitely rendered on camera. Running and screaming with delight when he finally gets back inside the house, Jimmie trips running up the stairs. Blood lines his toothy smile as he lays on the floor and grins up at the camera. Montgomery plays witness to his friend’s fight, squatting with him in the big house while working on his play. But when, in an effort to talk down the realtor trying to list the house, Montgomery learns the home was built almost 100 years before Jimmie’s grandfather moved to San Francisco from New Orleans, his friend’s devotion to the house begins to appear like more of a weight than an anchor.
When it’s finally revealed that Jimmie’s grandfather did not actually build the home, some of Jimmie’s friends and family frame it as a release. You are not this house, they say, letting it — and the neighborhood by extension — go could be its own form of self-preservation. Others, like his father, ignore the cited evidence. In his memory, that home will always be the work of his own father’s hands.
In local debates about gentrification, there’s often a call to respect the history of a place. But what does that mean exactly when history isn’t just deeds and records but family lore, even contested family lore. Do self-guided walking tours and embedded signage aimed at newcomers and visitors really respect community history? “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” Jimmie tells two young, white woman Muni riders complaining about the city. The film allows the possibility that the city’s newcomers could love it, but loving a place enough to hate it requires an intimacy with its mythology that can only really be shared in the settings and spaces being crowded out.
Considered again, Montgomery's question floats just behind the film's final scenes. Who deserves to be in this home, built well before Jimmie’s family arrived in the city in a neighborhood that was at one point home to Japanese families prior to internment but that has seen waves of neighborhood change over its lifetime.
In the film’s final moments, we find Jimmie at sea. In the rowboat Montgomery sometimes uses to ponder his plays, Jimmie is seemingly placeless. But it’s unclear whether this a triumphant moment, a bold declaration of freedom or a fleeting and desperate escape through the toxic waters that are now presumably being made clean, portending yet another wave of neighborhood change that continues on, unconcerned with questions of belonging.