It Takes Two
By Benjamin Goff
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Dir. Joe Talbot, U.S. A24
To discuss the idea of a group of people being “marginalized” naturally implies that there is a larger group deciding the overall rules. In Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Talbot and co-writer Jimmie Fails (who plays the main character of the same name) juxtapose those who live on the peripheries of the Bay Area with those who have relegated them there. In return, the film, whose title sounds like an apocalyptic Simon and Garfunkel song, paints a portrait that raises questions of identity, authenticity, and our relationship to home.
Talbot sweeps his camera across San Francisco in love-letter fashion, gliding across the urban, cascading hills of the city. Talbot examines both the larger, wealthier White demographic of the city and its Black community, which has seldom been shown on screen outside of They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, the rarely screened follow-up to In the Heat of the Night, and Barry Jenkins’s directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy. Talbot and Fails propse that even in a city that has become an epicenter for outcasts, there will always be large swaths of people displaced by gentrification.
The opening shot of a little Black girl immediately cuts to a shot of a White man in a hazmat suit. As the shot widens, we see that the man is wearing the gear in order to clean up a hazardous waste dump that has polluted a lake. While the ensuing racial juxtapositions on screen aren’t as extreme as the opening images, the constant racial divisions remain. As the camera tracks down the sidewalk showing more denizens from the neighborhood, we meet our two main characters at a bus stop, in the middle of a conversation about how they’re always waiting for a downtown bus that never arrives. Jimmie Fails, a bright but aimless young man, and his best friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), an artistic and shy counterpart who works at the fish market, find themselves on the margins as they attempt to restore the Victorian-style home that Fails believes his grandfather built in the 1940s. The two sneak onto the old property while the new owners are away to make necessary repairs to the house. Retouching exterior paint jobs and replacing hand rails, they put a new, positive spin on breaking-and-entering. As one might assume, the current owners, more baffled than genuinely upset, continually ask them to stay away, to no avail. However, when the owners leave San Francisco to take care of a sick relative, Jimmie sees it as a prime opportunity to take back what he believes is rightfully his.
After receiving some misleading advice from a strangely helpful broker, Jimmie becomes determined to secure the historic house and the two squat there during the process. Whether because of the befuddlement of the current owners, or the false sense of security they feel from the broker who later repossesses it, our main characters are constantly reminded that they don’t belong with the elite of downtown San Francisco. Jimmie and Mont oscillate between the dream of reclaiming upward social mobility and being contained by the outside community that they’ve become so familiar with, yet they come to realize that it’s even harder to break out of their own social circle than breaking into a new one.
When the two decide to return to Mont’s home on the outskirts of town, long tracking shots reveal the neighborhood’s menagerie of characters. Some residents have turned their cars into homes with no plans to get out, while others wear suits and discuss lofty, philosophical ideas. It grows evident that this community has its own rules for determining who’s out and who’s in. Jimmie’s father, whose main source of income is selling bootleg DVDs, becomes vexed when he arrives at Jimmie’s home to find him in “White people clothes.” While the marginalized community is at the mercy of the cultural and social mores set forth by the White demographic, Jimmie’s father is just one of many characters who have created a new set of standards which are completely in reaction to those set by White people.
Outside of our two protagonists, the most dynamic characters are a group of friends who hang out on the corner, decked out in expensive Jordans and trendy bomber jackets, yelling at pedestrians or, most often, each other. In seeming constant competition with one another, they are playing a game of bravado that ultimately leads them into dangerous territory, resulting in the death of their friend, Kofi, and an existential crisis in the group. Cutting through all of the commotion and machismo, Mont taps into the true ethos of the community. One night as the boys stand on the corner heckling one of their own, he approaches them and utters “remember Stanislavski.” Mont connects that Stanislavski’s “method acting” technique not only finds itself on the screen and on stage but also manifests in our own lives; this is related to what sociologist Erving Goffman called “face-work,” a way in which individuals attempt to control others’ perceptions of them by performing behind a theatrical façade, which hinders the authenticity required for true relationships. Mont recognizes this, also listing other famed theater names like Chekhov and Brecht. He’s letting them know that this is all an act. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, while superficially about the spaces and margins that we must negotiate, is on a much deeper level about the constant theatrics of our lives. Throughout the film, Jimmie and Mont are seemingly the only people who have come to accept themselves for who they are, and yet Jimmie too is caught up in an assumed identity after seeing himself through the lens of his grandfather's home.
In one of the final scenes, Mont, rather diffident up until this point, puts on a play in the attic of the squatted house soon after the death of their friend. In this one-man-show, Mont impersonates the various characters from the neighborhood as a way to shed light on them, on the “face-work” that he has so carefully been studying. Mont’s play takes an aggressive stance on the fragile masculinity that is on display in his community, and after completing a scene where he assumes the role of his deceased friend, he asks members of the audience to stand up and share how they remembered him. After a few share their stories, Jimmie stands up and shares that his last memory of Kofi is of him hurling obscenities and insults at Jimmie. He then immediately shares a time when the two were growing up and Kofi, not a physical fighter by any means, stood up for Jimmie when he couldn’t do so for himself. Jimmie pauses, and then declares, “People aren’t just one thing.”
From the stage, Mont then breaks the news to Jimmie that Jimmie’s grandfather did not, in fact, build the house. Rather, it was built almost 100 years prior. Devastated, Jimmie exits. Through conversations with his father, aunt, and Mont, Jimmie begins to break free of what now seems like a false identity. Jimmie is now freed from the expectations that he and the city have put on himself. With this, Jimmie decides to sail away from San Francisco, our final shot of him with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Jimmie’s epiphany about Kofi has now become a revelation for himself, and maybe those in the audience watching too: people aren’t just one thing.