JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: You could think of "The Last Black Man In San Francisco" as a love story between a man and a house. The man is named Jimmie Fails, and the house is a beautiful, old Victorian located in San Francisco's historic Fillmore District. Jimmie, who's in his 20s, grew up in that house, and he still visits it every week or so to touch up the paint or tend to the garden to the chagrin of its present occupants.
We're told that the house was built by Jimmie's grandfather, one of thousands of African Americans who moved to the city in the 1940s, fleeing oppression in the South. But then Jimmie's family lost the house. And in the years since, the Fillmore has seen much of its working-class black population displaced by wealthier white residents.
"The Last Black Man In San Francisco" is the latest of a few independent movies to address the toll of gentrification in the Bay Area. But it isn't an angry melodrama like "Blindspotting" or an off-the-wall satire like "Sorry To Bother You." It's a soulful comic fable grounded in hardscrabble realism, but also full of bright, vibrant colors and deadpan sight gags. It captures both the absurdity and the melancholy of a city in flux.
The movie emerged from a close friendship and collaboration between the director, Joe Talbot, and his star, Jimmie Fails, both lifelong San Franciscans. It's fitting that the actor and his character share a name, since the story is a loosely fictionalized version of Fails' own. In the movie, Jimmie spends nearly every free moment with his best friend, Mont, played by Jonathan Majors.
At night, Jimmie crashes on the floor of the cramped hovel that Mont shares with his grandfather, played by Danny Glover. During the day, the two friends sometimes ride around together on Jimmie's skateboard, looking on in bewilderment at a city that is changing so quickly - racially, socially and economically - that they hardly recognize it anymore.
Jimmie and Mont are dreamers at heart. Mont, a fishmonger, aspires to be an artist and playwright. Jimmie works in a nursing home, but what consumes him is that old Victorian, which he hopes will someday be his again. Then one day, the house is suddenly vacant and put up for sale. And Jimmie, sensing an opportunity, secretly moves back in. The place is a squatter's paradise, as well as a rich repository of old and sometimes painful memories.
In one scene, Jimmie and Mont invite over their friend Kofi, played by Jamal Trulove. Kofi asks Jimmie about the house, but Mont is the one who answers, sensing Jimmie's reluctance to talk about his past.
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JAMAL TRULOVE: (As Kofi) How'd y'all get this?
JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Montgomery Allen) It's Jimmie's. His grandpa built it. He was the first black man in San Francisco.
JIMMIE FAILS: (As Jimmie Fails) That's what they called him, anyways.
TRULOVE: (As Kofi) This that house? Jimmie used to talk about this spot all the time. But you know how n***** be in the group home, over exaggerating and s***, trying to be all special. Heard a lot about this one though, huh, Jimmie?
MAJORS: (As Montgomery Allen) You were in a group home?
FAILS: (As Jimmie Fails) Yeah, for like a year.
CHANG: You can tell from the leisurely cadences of the dialogue that Talbot and his actors are in no hurry to get from point A to point B. There's a surpassing gentleness to this movie, which knows that sometimes telling a story is a bit like exploring a city. You have to be willing to meander.
Not a lot seems to happen in "The Last Black Man In San Francisco," but as the story comes together piece by piece, it achieves an emotional power that extends well beyond its central duo. We only gradually learn what the tragedy of losing the house did to Jimmie and his family, including his still-angry father, played here by a ferocious Rob Morgan.
Talbot and his cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, show us parts of San Francisco we rarely see on screen like the abandoned shipyard at Hunter's Point which once employed thousands of African Americans during World War II. The entire movie feels haunted by the ghosts of history, reminding us of a rich and vibrant past that will never be restored.
That might make the movie sound unbearably sad, but "The Last Black Man In San Francisco" has a droll sense of humor that ultimately feels inseparable from its heartache. It also has a score by Emile Mosseri that sometimes verges on operatic, turning drab, forlorn moments into strangely ecstatic ones. Fails, a first-time actor, is a naturally expressive screen presence, and his very stillness draws you in. At times, he and Majors achieve the rapport of a great silent comedy duo.
Jimmie and Mont are like folk heroes in a contemporary urban odyssey, lonely adventurers just trying to find their way to someplace like home. They may never get there, but this extraordinarily beautiful movie makes you glad for every moment of the journey.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The Los Angeles Times.
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(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO'S "SAN LEANDRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.