The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco ★★★★

San Francisco has always been a city with a short memory. The fog rolls over the hills during the late afternoon, wiping the slate clean as it sweeps over the bay. The Earth shakes every so often, dislodging anything that got too comfortable where it was. The Japanese used to be the most visible immigrant population until the U.S. government decided to forcibly relocate them to internment camps that were scattered across the western seaboard. “Vertigo” is set there, because no American city is more attuned to the fear of rotational moment. So is Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a horror movie about a health inspector who slowly discovers that he’s being surrounded by alien duplicates. Today, the city is home to a diverse cross-section of American people, many of whom are being forced to move elsewhere due to one of the worst housing crises in the country.

Jimmie H. Fails IV — a character named for the first-time actor who plays and inspired him — is one of those people. He spent the best part of his childhood in a vast and creaky Victorian house in the Mission — the kind of place with gold trimmings on the window frames, a Witch’s Hat on the roof, and a mess of family history in every mote of dust.

The story goes that his grandfather, the self-proclaimed “first black man in San Francisco,” built the place with his own two hands in 1946. But the Fails couldn’t afford to keep it; Jimmie, like so many people in the city, was forced to move on before he was ready. He spent time in a group home before resettling somewhere even less desirable, but he doesn’t like to talk about that.

The latest film in a proud tradition of Bay Area gentrification narratives that includes Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” and last year’s “Blindspotting,” Joe Talbot’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly bittersweet debut feature tells Jimmie’s story with the perspective of someone who lived it — and the pain of someone who can’t bear to leave their hometown behind. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is pooled together from several different truths, as it borrows as much from Jimmie’s own life as it does from his friendship with his co-writer and director. The movie they’ve made together is both a spiteful love letter and a hilarious surrender; it’s as much a requiem for the things we lose as it is a pointed reminder that nothing is really ours to keep. One member of the film’s memorable cast puts it best: “You see, Jimmie, you never really own shit!”

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