By Terry Ebinger
Some movies are medicine. They lift the spirit and soothe the soul. A powerful film—like poetry, myth and dream—provides a container where overwhelming, troubling, unresolved, and unhealed emotion can be pondered at a manageable distance.
Perhaps most important during these threshold uncertain times, cinema also allows us to recognize those aspects of our culture that are no longer sustainable, then find our way past the old, dying order to imagine a new world. We need these medicinal images now, the ones that go beyond the adrenaline rush of zombie invasions, vampires and violent superheroes, to give us a glimpse of our better selves.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is this kind of movie, a loving exploration of wounded masculinity, and the healing power of friendship, family, and art. The film allows us to hang out with two sensitive and gentle men, Jimmie and Montgomery, two artists in their thirties, life-long friends, and San Francisco natives. They are also two Black men searching for a sense of meaning and belonging.
Jimmie (the movie’s screenwriter, Jimmie Fails), returns to his grandfather’s home and lovingly restores it, long after its been purchased by other people, and the neighborhood indelibly changed by gentrification. Home, of course, is a universal symbol of the self, and everything we love and value. Jimmie is reckoning with a profound sense of loss of his own idealized family, their grand Victorian house in the Fillmore district, and the grandfather who built it. He also longs for what San Francisco used to offer its residents — a strong sense of identity and community.
Perhaps my favorite line in the film comes when two hipster women on a bus start grumbling about the city. “You don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love San Francisco,” chastises Jimmie.
For Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), home is the center of his art. In one sublime scene, he visits the street corner gathering of black men he’s grown up with, and works with them as a writer and director. Loud and aggressive, they are portraying “disaffected, hostile, angry, threatening young urban black men” and Montgomery gives them “notes,” asking them to ratchet the feeling up here and there for maximum effect. But he also sees and feels the pain and fear beneath their bravado. It is a powerful moment.
Montgomery’s uncle, played by a wonderfully tender Danny Glover, offers the two young men an anchor, providing the kind of mentoring and encouragement they so sorely need.
The movie was directed by Fails’ childhood friend, Joe Talbot, who, amazingly, is not a Black man, as his directorial debut. It has been widely hailed for its richly detailed performances, gorgeous cinematography and production design, and foot-tapping musical score. The story arc is slow and graceful, unexpected emotional turns are patiently earned, and these men’s lives are depicted with all their quirks. We bear witness, as they move from melancholy, bewilderment and frustration to a state of grace and hope.
As Jimmie fights to reclaim his home and his neighborhood, we go along for the ride (sometimes literally, on the back of his skateboard), learning more about the Black men who built the ships and the canals in early San Francisco than the tourists and the newcomers ever will. The movie takes us back in time to provide a sense of the Fillmore area in its heyday, and we can feel the rooms breathe as Jimmie brings his grandfather’s Old Victorian back to life.
This film is a lyrical love letter to the spirit of place, a beautiful testament to the deep meaning of home and one man’s fight to preserve it. It’s a hidden gem about the Black contribution to San Francisco and one man’s longing to reclaim his family and his roots.
Terry Ebinger is a film scholar with over three decades of experience as a depth psychology educator, dream consultant, and seminar leader. Terry’s film classes synthesize art, cultural history, and the language of myth and symbol. Learn more about her work at Cinema and Psyche.