'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' is an elegy to home and family, destroyed by gentrification

The movie asks: When you leave a place, who will occupy that space in your wake? And will they ever remember you were there?
Jonathan Majors stars as Montgomery Allen and Jimmie Fails as Jimmie Fails in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."
Jonathan Majors stars as Montgomery Allen and Jimmie Fails as Jimmie Fails in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."Peter Prato / A24
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By Syreeta McFadden

One would not have imagined that a Metro PCS franchise playing go-go music in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., would become the Maginot line in the gentrification battles currently waged across American cities, but this is America we’re talking about. Reportedly, a new resident of a sleek apartment complex in a historically Black neighborhood believed their aural comfort was more valuable than the business of an entrepreneur whose love of D.C.’s original musical genre had won him years of devotion and endearment of the community he called home. They showed up in droves after Metro PCS' parent company, T-Mobile, ordered the music turned off, launched an online campaign and hosted a go-go block party in praise. (T-Mobile eventually reversed the decision.)

It’s a fight played out in ways large and small, both headline-making and invisible, in urban areas around the country as the very communities that abandoned urban areas (physically and politically) in the 20th century return in the 21st with the economic clout to push out those who had remained.

America in its rawest form is a story about native people’s displacement and dislocation, from the moment European settlers arrived centuries ago. Nowadays, in cities such as Oakland and San Francisco — collectively known to many as the Bay Area — economic forces have led to dislocation and displacement for longtime African American residents at an alarming pitch. The tech bro explosion has remapped the terrain, leaving long-time residents to contend with displacement by being priced out and forced to live on the outer edges of the city’s center. A recent study by Wealth X claims that 1 out of every 11,600 people is a billionaire in San Francisco.

Compound this new lived reality with the overwhelming underrepresentation of people of color employed by these tech behemoths — forced instead to accept low-wage service labor jobs — and you have a prescription for the disaster of calcified wealth inequality and fixed economic caste.

This reality serves as the backdrop for the new film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” released in theaters nationwide Friday.

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Jonathan Majors stars as Montgomery Allen in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."Adam Newport-Berra / A24

The film opens with eye-popping portraits of black, working class residents of Bayview Hunters Point juxtaposed against white interlopers — in this case, entombed in hazmat suits cleaning a contaminated waterway while a child, missing two front teeth, looks on, exposed to the same elements from which the newcomers protect themselves. The visual underscores the ruthlessness of displacement and its accompanying environmental racism, as black families are pushed further from the center, to the edges to which society’s failures are banished.

Director Joe Talbot and his longtime friend (and lead actor), Jimmie Fails, have crafted a unique story of legacy, memory and gentrification in their debut effort, centering on the fictionalized “Jimmie Fails,” a young man wrestling with the weight of legacy embodied by a Victorian-era house in San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood that his family lost during the 1990s crack epidemic.

Fillmore, for those unfamiliar, was the Harlem of the West in the mid 20th century: African Americans migrating West to flee the fascism of the Jim Crow South sought shelter in many cases, in the abandoned homes of Japanese Americans, who had been forced into internment camps by the U.S. government after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Both communities were then targeted for redevelopment. And now, because of the tech boom, it’s an increasingly expensive area being sold to outside investors because of the heritage of the community that’s been forced out.

When we meet the characters — Jimmie and his best friend, Monty — skateboarding in tandem through today’s San Francisco streets, (a whirling blur of masterful cinematography by Adam Newport-Bera), we see the dramatic transformation of the city, from just its architecture to focus the people who inhabit it. They arrive for what viewers understand as a regular-yet-surreptitious visit to this family’s former house in the now-gentrified Fillmore district, much to annoyance and chagrin of its current caretaker — an older white couple. But, on their visits, they commit wild vandalizing acts of modest maintenance and upkeep: Jimmie, for instance, retouches the faded trim surrounding the windows, or inspects the condition of the garden.

Then, in turn of events, the house suddenly becomes vacant and Jimmie reclaims the family home — now worth millions. He and Monty carry the memories and legacy of a successful and prosperous past for African Americans in the neighborhood that his baby boomer parent lost, leading to a sense of rootlessness that persists. Jimmie struggles with the shame of that dislocation — best rendered in scenes with his father, who now lives in a single-room occupancy residential hotel and sells bootleg DVDs — and his act of reclamation is seen as a way to overcome that.

“The Last Black Man of San Francisco” is, then, less a movie about the destructive and despairing forces of gentrification for indigenous communities, but an elegy to the concept of home and family. Jimmie slowly realizes an American tradition — inheritance of place, and his hometown as an identity — will forever elude him in adulthood.

Gentrification is about erasure, but mostly it is a story of annihilation. Newcomers —whether they’re wealthy white tech laborers or suburban kids — are just barely attached to the idea of an existing community, but rather seize a place and affix their own rules and narrative, never acknowledging its past while proclaiming its relevance in their present.

“You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” Fails tells a pair of new transplants who were kvetching about the neighborhoods they’ve found too lacking in their desired needs or cache of coolness. “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” And only a local can love the unique weirdness of the city.

Danny Glover stars as Grandpa Allen and Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."Courtesy of A24

In one glorious and quintessentially San Francisco scene, Jimmie and a naked man share a bus shelter watching a trolley full of drunken, absurd white partiers roll by. (There are very few places in America where public nakedness isn’t the most extraordinary moment or feature of city life.) Shared memory and storytelling is the only thing that can save a city from the wave of newcomers who overwrite the existing narrative.

Perhaps that is why the furious pushback to the day the music died in D.C. was electrifying. It answered the question — in the day of BBQ Beckys and Permit Pattys — of what spaces black people can occupy, live or thrive, with music and dance.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” leaves viewers to ponder the extreme choice left for Jimmie (and by extension, all black, working class residents in gentrifying neighborhoods) — stay or leave — and the questions you have to ponder when you make that choice. When you leave, is there space that will accept you with unconditional and open arms? Who will occupy that space in your wake? And will they ever take the time to remember you were there?