by Andrew Wyatt on Jun 25, 2019

A city is a perpetually mutating organism. Like all gradual processes, this evolution often occurs in such tiny, iterative steps that one barely notices change is happening at all. There are exceptions, of course, where a natural disaster or public-works project sweeps through and overthrows the existing urban order in a relatively short span of time. For the most part, however, a city is eroded and replaced through a thousand cuts, a Ship of Theseus realized on the metropolis scale. One day, you look around and realize that your neighborhood has changed, for better or worse: The faces are unrecognizable, the familiar feels uncanny, and living memories have been replaced by strange and haunted spaces.

This sense of being unsettled in one’s lifelong stomping ground suffuses writer-director Joe Talbot’s lyrical and eccentric debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Proximally, this is a story about gentrification: individuals, families, and communities elbowed aside as their neighborhoods become desirable to more affluent property owners. There are few places in America where this phenomenon is more evident than in the Bay Area, which is ground zero for one of the nation’s grimmest and most persistent housing crises. TLBMISF simmers with indignation over this sort of slow-motion displacement, but Talbot’s film is not, strictly speaking, a jeremiad against the evils of wealthy white encroachment into historically minority-owned spaces. Instead, the director approaches the subject as a personal, bittersweet modern fairy tale, and in doing so expands and deepens his feature’s themes, embracing all the ways that people can be made to feel like strangers in their own backyards.

Co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert, TLBMISF stars Jimmie Fails, who makes his captivating feature acting debut as a character who is also named Jimmie Fails. (He and Talbot share a story credit, and several aspects of the film essentially constitute fictionalized autobiography.) A skateboarding twentysomething who works as a nurse at a long-term senior-care facility, Jimmie is restless and rootless in the fashion of many young men. He sleeps on the floor in the cramped bedroom of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken fishmonger and amateur playwright who lives with and cares for his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). The Allen home is tiny and aging, but at least it’s a home.

That's more than Jimmie has right now. He spends his waking hours obsessing over the long-lost home where he lived until his was 6 years old, a gorgeous Victorian-style townhouse in the Fillmore District, smack in the heart of San Francisco. Jimmie’s grandfather purportedly built the house in the 1940s, mimicking the style of the surrounding properties, most of which were owned by Japanese-Americans until those families were removed and scattered across the Pacific Coast by World War II-era internment. The Fails house is now owned by an older, affluent white couple, but in Jimmie’s persnickety judgment, they’ve allowed the property to fall into disrepair. He accordingly spends his free time performing minor maintenance to the façade – re-painting the red and gold trim, for example, when it begins to fade and peel. Unfortunately, the current owners regard his unsolicited handyman labor as little more than a creepy, possessive form of trespassing.

Following a death in the family, however, the former Fails house becomes mired in an estate dispute, and the current owners vacate it. The empty, unattended property is too much of a temptation for Jimmie to resist, and he accordingly sneaks into the house and squats there, soaking up the remembrances that lay dormant in its stained-glass windows, wooden staircases, and dusty pipe organ. Mont eventually joins him, claiming the majestic dining room as his own space. Jimmie soon pays a visit to his Auntie Wanda (Tichina Arnold), fibbing about having his own place and convincing her to relinquish some of his granddad's old furniture, which is currently collecting cobwebs in storage. Now properly outfitted with vintage furnishings, the friends begin fantasizing guilelessly about the simple pleasures of home ownership, an all-too-easy enticement in a grand old residence like the Fails house. (Gardening! Parties! Reading the paper and sipping coffee!) They even change the locks.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be here,” Jimmie muses in a rare moment of doubt. “Who should be here more?” retorts Mont, his own misgivings assuaged by the house’s gingerbread charm and antique opulence. “Some millionaire?” Jimmie has no response to that, and he can’t deny that the house feels like a birthright, something that was once swindled away and has now been reclaimed. Naturally, this bubble of nostalgia and sanctuary eventually bursts, but the magic of TLBMISF lies in how Talbot conveys the irresistible gravitational force of a place, the way its comforting embrace can make myopic delusion seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. The viewer is compelled to share Jimmie’s cozy sense of domestic bliss, notwithstanding the nagging awareness that it’s all built on a foundation of sand.

Talbot achieves this by crafting a fantastical sensibility around his film from the very first scene. A street preacher (Willie Hen) standing on a milk crate pontificates on the allegedly shady environmental cleanup occurring in the bay across from the Allen house, his cadences pitched halfway between a Sunday revival and a conspiratorial rant. The film’s cockeyed, wistful version of San Francisco is populated by such colorful characters, most of them faintly exaggerated but sketched with the affectionate warmth of a hometown playwright. Some of these individuals represent whiter and wealthier segments of the city – such as Finn Whittrock’s owlshit-slick real-estate agent, a SF native who can sniff out a high-six-figure down payment like a shark smells blood.

Mostly, however, Talbot and Richert’s screenplay maintains focus on the city’s down-and-out African-American characters. This includes Jimmie’s acerbic, semi-estranged father (Rob Morgan), a shiftless bootleg-DVD hustler who reacts furiously to the discovery that his son is occupying the old family home. “That’s not your old house and that’s not your neighborhood!” James Sr. snaps, the ambiguity of this declaration just one example of the script’s plainspoken elegance. By means of recurring personalities like the preacher and a Greek chorus of blustering, tattooed neighborhood toughs – as well as one-off characters such as the Candy Lady (Dakecia Chappell) who runs a gray-market corner store out of her living room – Talbot establishes a kinship with Spike Lee’s epochal Do the Right Thing (1989) and its vivid, hyper-real depiction of Brooklyn street life.

The film’s warm, quixotic atmosphere is further enhanced by Adam Newport-Berra’s glorious cinematography, which captures the city in all its iterations: crystalline and gleaming; soft and autumnal; chintzy and crumbling; and, of course, wrapped in pale sea fog, which in one crucial scene becomes a Stygian herald of tragedy. Talbot’s style is daring and dynamic, freely mixing fussy compositions with slouching naturalism, feisty montage with ultra-slow-motion indulgence. It’s a credit to the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor David Marks that this kitchen-sink formal approach – which evinces influence from filmmakers as diverse as Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick, Sam Raimi, and the aforementioned Lee – feels enchanting rather than schizophrenic.

Although there is undeniably a political dimension to TLBMISF, as one might expect from a film about gentrification and black displacement, Talbot and Fails’ screenplay is energized foremost by its characters. Through Jimmie and Mont, the film finds ways to explore several forms of urban alienation. With his tweed jacket and Moleskine full of sketches and half-finished plays, Mont is both unapologetic about his sensitive-artist inclinations and self-conscious about how awkwardly he fits into “his” neighborhood. (There’s even a scene where he practices his African-American Vernacular in front of the mirror.) Given his grunge-rocker wardrobe and the skateboard slung under his arm, Jimmie is also subtly marked as a misfit, and the pair’s inseparable nature inevitably invites homophobic insinuations from the Greek chorus. The norms of black hetero masculinity rumble uncomfortably through the story, adding a layer of anxious complexity to the already-fraught drama of the Fails homestead. This tension comes to a head when one of the chorus members, Kofi (Jamal Trulove), begins dropping by the house, and his queer-flavored intentions briefly disrupt the household’s almost matrimonial equipoise.

Talbot’s film is funnier, sweeter, and weirder than this summary of the plot might suggest, often finding dry humor in the absurdities of race, class, and geography. In one scene, Jimmie encounters a gaggle of white architectural tourists on Segways and ends up cheerfully schooling the guide on the real history of the Fails house. In a running gag, the Muni bus that Jimmie and Mont wait for every morning never actually appears, repeatedly necessitating a tandem skateboard dash through the city’s rolling streets. (Inviting stares from Korean grocers, Airpod-wearing tech bros, and leftover Haight-Ashbury weirdos alike.) Like Carlos López Estrada’s shamefully under-seen Blindspotting (2018) – another tale of male friendship, racial tensions, and Bay Area gentrification – TLMISF expertly blends its scrappy wit with an earnest examination of place, identity, and ownership. This emotional and thematic nimbleness is what makes Talbot’s debut so auspicious. It’s a film that evokes profound melancholy over its characters’ personal losses and the real-world plight of black Americans, while also nurturing a vital existential truth: A person is more than the four walls that surround them.

Rating: B+