Bay House Blues

Real-life drama puts heart back in San Francisco neighbourhood

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
RPL Theatre

Sept. 6–8

The housing crisis in San Francisco is a phenomenon both unique and emblematic. The tech boom has driven prices up and forced countless residents out of the city, unable to afford living in the Bay Area.

The superb The Last Black Man in San Francisco tackles the subject in poetic fashion. Unlike Terrence Malick’s unbearable lyricism of late, this film is gentle and welcoming. The mix of surrealism and social critique works wonderfully, not a small feat to pull off.

Jimmie Falls (as himself) is the black man of the title. His identity is tied to a Victorian house in the now unaffordable-for-mere-mortals Filmore district. The place was built by his grandfather and he spent a good chunk of his childhood there. His attachment is such he performs unsolicited repairs — much to the chagrin of the owners.

An opportunity to squat in the house lands in Jimmie’s lap. He sees it as an opportunity to bring it back to its classic splendour. But his efforts put him at odds with his acquaintances (who fail to understand his sensitive soul), his dad, and the forces of capitalism. A vacant four-million dollar property won’t go unnoticed for long.

I’ll be honest, it took me about an hour to get onboard with this film. But every element in the setup pays off twofold during the second half. Its main theme — how African-American males are often put into a box they can seldom escape — is elegantly tackled. The unhurried, sentimental approach places the film above the likes of Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting by allowing a glimpse into the characters’ core.

For a first-time feature director, Joe Talbot demonstrates ridiculous confidence, supported by extraordinary turns by Jimmie Falls (whose real-life history inspired the film) and Jonathan Majors as Mont, a playwright whose artistic inclinations have made him an outcast. Worth mentioning, Danny Glover shows up as Mont’s dad. Instead of coasting on his screen persona (cough, Morgan Freeman, cough), Glover keeps popping up in meaningful indie films.

With every department (cinematography, design, score) firing in all cylinders, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is bound to launch dozens of careers.