“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” surely will resonate with anyone who has ever lived here while not being rich.
It also will click with others, elsewhere. It’s for anyone who appreciates a good weird comedy with plenty of left-of-center laughs and a few daubs of poignancy as well.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is the feature directing debut of San Franciscan Joe Talbot, who based the story on his friend Jimmie Fails; Fails plays a version of himself, also called Jimmie Fails.
Jimmie sleeps on the floor of his best friend’s place in Hunters Point. Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) is strange, quiet and thoughtful, an artist and playwright who wears secondhand suits.
Montgomery and Jimmie watch movies on TV with Montgomery’s blind grandfather (our own Danny Glover), Montgomery narrating the action. (The movie is Rudolph Maté’s 1949 San Francisco noir “D.O.A.”)
Jimmie, meanwhile, travels via skateboard (the bus never arrives) and frequently goes to the Fillmore district to gaze at his childhood home, a beautiful Victorian with a witch’s hat, and to clandestinely take care of its paint and gardening needs.
He tells anyone who will listen — including Jello Biafra in a hilarious cameo — that his grandfather built the house. Jimmie lived there as a child and believes that it’s still a part of his identity.
Suddenly, due to an inheritance battle, the white couple living there is forced to leave. Jimmie discovers that, while court battles rage, the house could likely sit empty for years. So he moves in.
If this movie were made in the 1980s, Jimmie would miraculously come into the $4 million he needs to buy the house and live there happily ever after. But, like a great many dreamers, artists and all-around nuts that live in The City, Jimmie will never see that much money.
But “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is about more than a house; it’s about how a place becomes home, and how impermanent that sense of home can be. And it’s about family.
Jimmie’s family is scattered. He travels across the bridge (to “bumf—k”) to visit his aunt, and in one funny, heartbreaking scene, he runs into his mother on the bus, as if she were an old friend from college.
Movement in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a thing of beauty. As Jimmie and Montgomery skateboard around town, the camera glides through changing neighborhoods.
Pauses also are important. In one great scene, the friends run giddily through empty rooms of the newly-occupied house, but the camera never catches them; only their footsteps and laughter are heard as the camera rests on walls, corners and corridors.
With Ernst Lubitsch-like pacing, Talbot allows humor to grow in spaces between moments; as in “The Shop Around the Corner” or “To Be or Not to Be,” the jokes are hard to describe, but easy to get.
With its wistful sorrow and beauty, and rare anger, the movie works indirectly; themes of displacement and gentrification lurk in the edges, not in the center.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a postcard to The City, and everything it was, might, and could be — as well as everything that has gone terribly wrong.
In one crucial scene, Jimmie asserts that you’re not allowed to hate San Francisco unless you love it, too.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Mike Epps
Written by: Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, Rob Richert
Directed by: Joe Talbot
Running time: 2 hours