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'Last Black Man in San Francisco' review: This old house tells a story

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Allow me to introduce "The Last Black Man in San Francisco." It's a movie about real estate, unreal gentrification cycles and what it means to rage against and embrace the place you call home.

It's focused on a particular part of the world. But it deals with historical truths that Chicago, among other cities intent on breaking half of its citizens' hearts with every new generation in the housing market, understands as well as anywhere.

There's a line that comes late in the movie, already quoted extensively since director Joe Talbot's film premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. The actor Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself, is riding the Muni, listening to two young women complain about the cost of living, the hassles, everything wrong with America's most stunningly situated city.

Then he interrupts. Do you love it here? he asks. Well, kind of, sort of, they reply, in halting bits and pieces. And then he says:

"You don't get to hate it unless you love it."

In the opening scenes of "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," love and hate act as opposing forces, like Radio Raheem's fists in "Do the Right Thing," or Rev. Harry Powell's tattooed fingers in "The Night of the Hunter." We're in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, just above San Francisco Bay. This is where countless African-Americans worked the shipyards once upon a time. The camera follows a schoolgirl skipping down a sidewalk; it's the picture of charm and optimism. Then she passes by police tape and an otherworldly sight: men in hazmat suits, cleaning up the toxic water in the background.

 

This is the neighborhood where Jimmie (Fails) has been crashing with his best friend, the aspiring playwright Montgomery, played with a plaintive assurance by Jonathan Majors. Montgomery's father (Danny Glover) is blind; as the three sit on the couch, watching the 1949 San Francisco-set film noir classic "D.O.A." on TV, Montgomery quietly narrates the action for his father's benefit.

Across town, meanwhile, Jimmie's stern, dismissive father (Rob Morgan) ekes out a living assembling bootleg DVDs in his Single Room Occupancy studio apartment. These two father figures likewise serve as opposing types: warmth and understanding versus regret and recrimination.

The regrets in Jimmie's family have to do with a grand old Victorian house located in the historically black Fillmore district, now crawling with wealthy white homeowners. It's Jimmie's defining family story: In 1946, as he has been told all his life, Jimmie's grandfather built the house himself, and for a time Jimmie grew up there, playing its pipe organ, scampering through its many gorgeous hallways.

Now the house is owned by an older white couple, haggling over its ownership with family members. But Jimmie visits the house daily, touching up the paint trim on the exterior, not giving a damn if the owners think he's nuts.

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