Full of love for and rage at a city that has changed beyond recognition over the last few decades, the new comedy “The Last Black man in San Francisco” deals with the problem of rising rent prices driving most of the population out of an area that they once inhabited. This is the phenomenon of gentrification, where wealthier people move into a poorer area, raising rent costs until most of the previous inhabitants have to leave. People sometimes think of gentrification as the improvement of a poor city or neighborhood, but it is not seen that way by the communities that are broken up by the appearance of wealthier renters.
Humourous and relatively light if also partly serious, The Last Black Man in San Fransisco is the first feature film from the aspiring director Joe Talbot, looks at the comic side of the conversion of a poor city into a hip but an expensive one. At the center of the drama are two friends Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (played by Jonathan Majors), the former a hospice nurse and the latter a playwright. Early on in the film, the two encounter a street preacher who amuses them with stories of how the city is about to get them and how they have to fight back. Is the street preacher ranting about nothing, or is the city about to rapidly change?
The two of them both live with Montgomery’s grandfather, who owns a house in a middle-class black neighborhood that is rapidly becoming unaffordable. After the owner passes away, there is a dispute about who gets to keep the estate, and it becomes clear that the two men will have to find a new place to live in a city that they may no longer be able to afford. The neighborhood in which they have has seen a few different demographic changes over the last century; it had once been a Japanese neighborhood before the residents were thrown into WW2 internment camps. Although neither of the two friends possesses the house, they do attempt to fix it up and intend to buy it in the future perhaps, but as the film goes on, it becomes increasingly likely that they are going to lose it.
As well as the themes of gentrification and generational change, the film also deals with growth, love, masculinity, and loss. It is an unusual but not artsy film made outside of the Hollywood system, likely to launch a successful career for the new director. The film is not really autobiographical but is inspired by the experiences of both the director and one of the two lead actors, who were good friends long before the creation of this film. It is also a tour of the city of San Francisco itself, full of wonderful and sometimes tragic eccentrics. With a running time of 120 minutes, it does not seem to drag on for any longer than necessary to tell its story. The film will be released on the seventh of June 2019, distributed by A24 films.