Back in 1982, an independent filmmaker named Jenny Bowen made a movie called Street Music, which centered around the working-class long-term residents of a San Francisco apartment building in the Tenderloin. The rent-controlled building — long neglected — gets acquired by a wealthy landlord who aims to “relocate” the tenants (many of whom are elderly people living on fixed incomes) so he can fix the place up and make more money renting the units to yuppies, leading to a strike led by a street performer and her boyfriend, the building’s manager. In the end, the landlord has his way, forcing the elderly residents out onto the street, their future uncertain in the only city they’ve ever called home.
Bowen wrote the film based on her own experience working as a night bookkeeper in a run-down apartment-hotel, incorporating many of the building’s residents into her screenplay, which she brought to life largely with untrained actors. Street Music never got much of a release or much notice outside of San Francisco, as at the time the general public wasn’t much concerned about gentrification or its long-term consequences. Bulldozing old buildings to make luxury lofts for millionaires who may never live in them? Pushing families out of their homes to make way for baseball stadiums and fancy coffee houses? It was all in the name of progress, right?
Nearly 40 years later, the trickle of gentrification has turned into a roaring faucet that can’t (or won’t) be turned off or ignored, and Bowen’s little-seen, long-out-of-print film now feels like an ominous prelude to director Joe Talbot’s stunning debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a major hit at Sundance earlier this year. Talbot co-wrote the film with Rob Richert based on a story by first-time actor Jimmie Fails, Talbot’s longtime friend and fellow native San Franciscan. Fails stars as himself (or a version of himself, anyway) in a loose, flowing narrative that inventively blends fact and fiction as it weaves the complicated story of Fails’ family’s diminishing fortune, asking important and hard-to-answer questions about what it means to call a city home.
Many elements in The Last Black Man came straight from the real Fails’ memories growing up in his grandfather’s massive and fantastically ornate gingerbread-trimmed Queen Anne–style home. In the film — and in real life — Fails’ father eventually lost the family’s house due to his drug addiction, and from there, the family split off and went their separate ways. Jimmie (the character), in particular, has a hard time saying goodbye to the place that held so many of his formative memories, and years later, he and his best friend, Monty (Jonathan Majors), continue to visit, sneaking onto the property to lovingly maintain it, much to the frustration and confusion of the 50-something white couple (personality type: definite NPR listeners) who have since moved in.
The neighborhood around the house has changed a lot since Jimmie’s childhood, as illustrated via a fantastic scene featuring a cameo by Bay Area punk legend Jello Biafra as the leader of a historical tour (on motorized scooter, no less) who pompously argues with Jimmie over the origins of the house after Jimmie declares to the tour group that his grandfather built it from the studs up, a story Jimmie was told by his irresponsible, often-absent father and has been repeating his entire life without much of a second thought. It’s part of his identity — something that ties him to the house even when he has no legal claim to it; it’s something he holds on to as he’s sleeping on the floor as a young adult at Monty’s grandpa’s house with nowhere else to go. It’s an attempt to take the narrative back from the gentrifiers — the kind of people who are constantly saying things like, “Well, this was an Italian neighborhood first anyway” and “This is just the way it is.”
So when the new owners are eventually forced to move out due to an estate battle that’s expected to go on for years, Jimmie sees the opportunity to stealthily take up residence, bringing Monty along as his new roommate. After taking Jimmie’s family’s furniture out of storage at his cousin’s house, they set about returning the home to the way it was when Jimmie was growing up. The roomy house is an oasis — a place where they can work on their art and feel like themselves. It’s a return to the good-old American dream (long out of reach for most people, especially in a city like San Francisco, where space is at a premium and most people live in cramped rented quarters) — the dream squandered decades earlier by Jimmie’s father (Rob Morgan, whose performance here is especially powerful and haunting).
Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra brings a dreamy, often surreal feel to the proceedings that mirrors the deeply idiosyncratic and often nostalgic way Jimmie and Monty — whose deep friendship, a kind not often seen on screen, makes up the core of the film — see the city. Their San Francisco is huge and overwhelming, but also small enough that you just might run into a family member you haven’t seen in years while riding a bus across town. Their San Francisco can be soul-crushing and increasingly alienating, but it’s alternatively magical and full of possibilities (and thus hard to leave behind, even when it feels financially impossible to stay). All of this adds up to make The Last Black Man in San Francisco as dynamic and weird and memorable as the city itself.