The Last Black Man in San Francisco: a tale of time, memory, and nostalgia

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) both succeeds and fails in its tale of time, memory, nostalgia, and the art of letting go.

This semi-autobiographical film is the brainchild of childhood friends Joe Albot and Jimmie Fails and a product of their love (hate-to-love, hurts-to-love) to the city they grew up in.  Praised and admired for a narrative that reaches far beyond the edges of the screen, The Last Black Man in San Francisco focusses on the dream-like roamings of Fails – the actor – playing a fictionalized version of himself as he struggles to maintain and reclaim his family home, or at least the idea of it.

Jimmie Fails spends most of his time and thought obsessing over a Victorian house that once was his family’s. Many have seen the film as a depiction of the woes of a man finding himself without much agency in a city in flux – and to a certain extent it is. But, though the storytelling captures the crises of identity, identification, the ambiguity of remembrance, as a film about the inherent violence of gentrification it misses the mark. Fails exists within a marginalised society, a victim of the economic system and the consequences of capitalistic development, and though his problems are very real and relevant to talk about, I wouldn’t say his situation justifies his behaviour of deceiving, trespassing, and breaking and entering into a house he has no claim on. It is understandable that he holds onto the past – as well as his own imagined past – but the awareness of the absurdity of his selfish, naive obsession overshadows the sympathy we were supposed to have for him.

Despite and because of the failings of its protagonist, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is touching in its own right. Don’t get me wrong, I felt sorry for Fails – a lost boy trying to find his way to a home that never really existed – but his character and actions were the weaker links of the film, alienating the observer. Light needs to be shined on a different reading of the narrative for it and its author to be appreciated in full effect. It is what lies beneath the surface, in the complex workings of modern loneliness, that a large audience would find the echo of truth and relatability. The strength of the film is in its study of memory and identity in their various forms and incantations, and its lucid visual style that enhances its worldview. Indeed, the piece plays as a cinematic tableau vivant picked straight out of the realities of Albot, Fails, and many others with stories akin to theirs.

In sum, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a depiction of an existential crisis in times of change, a performance of identity, and an exposition of a play-like structured story that comes with a surrealistic look that matches the theatricality of the plot.


The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens in theatres across the UK on October 25, 2019

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