MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
The leading character in The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a Victorian house in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco. It’s the house where Jimmie Fails grew up until he was six years old. His father James Sr. (Rob Morgan) inherited the building from Jimmie’s grandfather (who – according to family history – built it with his own hands in 1946), but lost the house in the 1970s due to what the Victorians might call a period of dissolute living. Jimmie currently shares a small bedroom with his childhood friend Montgomery (Majors), who lives at his grandfather’s (Danny Glover) house in a less prosperous neighborhood. Mont is an aspiring artist and playwright, jotting down ideas in a notebook.
Jimmie works as an aide in a nursing home but it is a low-paying job; he cannot afford a cell phone and uses a skateboard and public transportation to get around the hills of the city. He keeps in touch with his dad from time to time, and with his aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) more frequently.
Jimmie occasionally trespasses in order to paint and fix up the stately house from his past, much to the annoyance of the current tenants. One day, to Jimmie’s amazement, the couple moves out and the house is vacant. Jimmie and Mont move in as Jimmie tries to figure out a way to reclaim the property.
The Last Man in San Francisco does not quite tell a plot-driven story, but rather evokes a deep love for a particular city, accompanied with a sense of regret for how gentrification can move marginalized minorities away from places of deep meaning. The beautiful musical score by Emile Mosseri, accompanied by a heartfelt rendition of the John Phillips song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and the stunning cinematography of Adam Newport-Berra combine to create a beautiful and memorable tone poem. Even the rough-edged profanities that are spoken by a small group of low-level street hoods are graced with humor and heart.
Writer-director Joe Talbot and actor Jimmie Fails both grew up in San Francisco as friends and this film is a creative embellishment of Jimmie’s real-life experience. It also incorporates one of the best depictions of male friendship and love that I have ever seen at the movies.
I have a great affection for the city and pray that the church may continue to be a vital part of the urban landscape. The Last Black Man in San Francisco reminds us that there will be struggles along the way and some harsh realities to deal with, but if we have the eyes to see the Kingdom of God, there is splendor all around and reclamation work to do to reveal even deeper beauty.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A lovely film about friendship, family and neighborhood.
Two pitchforks: Occasional strong swearing; class divisions and the downside of gentrification.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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