The famous opening scene in Rudolph Maté’s 1949 noir D.O.A. shows Edmund O’Brien walking down a long corridor to report his own murder, but the most electrifying moment happens when O’Brien’s character Frank Bigelow runs down a crowded Market Street at top speed. The crew had no official permission to shoot on a major thoroughfare in broad daylight, but they got their shot, and it has a guerrilla quality — as if the crew, too, were prepared to break into a sprint if they had to.
Depicting San Francisco as lurid and alienating, D.O.A. is by no means a paean to this noirish town. But a few of the characters in Joe Talbot’s directorial debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, watch the black-and-white classic together, never specifying which film it is.
In spite of its elegiac title, Talbot’s film most certainly is a love letter to San Francisco. Created over a five-year period, it’s a fictionalized version of the life of one Jimmie Fails IV — played by the real-life Jimmie Fails IV, Talbot’s real-life best friend — and his attempt to wrest back possession of his family’s historical home on Golden Gate Avenue by touching up its trim even after its current occupants have asked him not to. They’re “tasteless,” Jimmie mutters at one point, “but at least they didn’t fuck it up.”
The beauty of restoration calls to him and to us, but The Last Black Man starts off in another neighborhood: The Bayview. It opens quite discordantly, in fact, with a shot of a young Black girl staring at a worker in a hazmat suit. It’s reminiscent of the scene in E.T. when government agents invade the house, but the protective gear is for a considerably more mundane purpose: radioactive remediation, presumably in and around Hunters Point. (A sidewalk preacher notes the fact that they’re protected from any radioactive particles while residents are expected to calmly go about their day.)
Talbot and Fails make use of a San Francisco of their own imaginary, where things that are miles apart collide like space boulders in an asteroid field for the sake of a higher truth. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a bittersweet film, and it’s a hilarious film, but few people are probably prepared for what a beautiful film it is. Jimmie and his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) skate by the abandoned greenhouses in the Portola, ask for a bank loan in a repurposed Beach Chalet, and stand up for themselves against an oily realtor in an office opposite the New Mission Theater. While visiting his father (Rob Morgan) as he bootlegs DVDs in a Tenderloin SRO, Jimmie meets resistance to the idea of taking up residence in the home he’d been fixing up all this while.
The house itself — which family lore holds was built by Jimmie Fails I in 1946 — is an ornate Victorian jewel in the Fillmore. But to no small extent, the Fillmore was then and the Bayview is now. The Fillmore’s sense of dispossession endemic to Black life in San Francisco belongs to the postwar generation, which saw their lively neighborhood demolished (or “cleared,” in the cold, clinical parlance of the time). Seventy-odd years later, it’s the Bayview’s turn.
And this Bayview is not a hyper-realistic neighborhood with the T-Third Street running intermittently at best, or of Radio Free Africa and the Bayview Opera House. Nor is it an irradiated hellhole about to be flipped for the benefit of newer, more affluent residents. Rather, it’s freighted with a quieter symbolism, of resistance to a subtler form of dehumanization than Justin Herman’s bulldozers. A tension, the feeling of never quite knowing whether you belong, animates The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Cognizant as it is of the Japanese-Americans who made the Fillmore their home before World War II, the film asks again and again, “What if we shouldn’t be here?”
It’s not so much the right to live in San Francisco as the hard-won victory in living here without that crippling self-doubt. Consequently, the true antagonists aren’t gentrifiers but people who don’t realize how good they have it. Confronting two shallow Muni riders idly putting down San Francisco, Jimmie interrupts them by asking them if they love living here. Their replies almost don’t matter, because Jimmie has his reply to the reply at the ready: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
Jimmie loves it, and he has people who love him. Montgomery’s father, Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover) is a blind man who lets Jimmie live with them and seems only to want to help his son write a play. He lives in a comparatively isolated yet defiant home at the base of a hillside in the city’s southeastern quarter, a place where the bus never seems to arrive. (It is there that they watch D.O.A. together.) Outside are a group of friends who do little but hang out and give Mont a hard time — spinning their wheels as the neighborhood slowly changes underfoot. Not far away is the guy who lives out of the same run-down but still tricked-out car that Jimmie himself once lived in. His wheels are spinning, too, but only because you have to move your home at least once every 72 hours when it’s parked on a San Francisco street. Behind him, the Bay twinkles by evening.
“You never really own shit,” another character says at one point. That sentiment could refer to a mortgage or to a lease on the city itself, always evanescent and unsure. The sidewalk preacher holds forth on a milk crate set up right in front of the visually arresting but certainly not beautiful mudflats that low tide exposes, while Jimmie shoves off for a stress-relieving row. He needs to get out of the city while still being inside it.
Water is one of Talbot’s strongest motifs, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco ends with Jimmie among the swells, having ventured out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. He may not be fully at peace, but the city is simply too beautiful not to love. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.