“It’s not your loss. It’s San Francisco’s”: Black Movement, Displacement, Home/lessness, and Gentrification in The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an elegy to the displacement of minority communities from the gentrifying city. Jacqueline Pinkowitz discusses the film’s images of movement, dislocation, and loss and the legacy of racial inequality in the Bay Area.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019) is full of movement: physical and geographic, social and economic, forced and voluntary, historic and contemporary, with these large-scale human movements cinematically embodied in dynamic tracking shots and slow motion cinematography. Narratively, thematically, visually, and sensorially focused on movement and mobility – and its constriction – the film critically exposes the impact of gentrification, dislocation, and homelessness on San Francisco’s Black residents. By foregrounding its Black male characters’ physical movement through urban space, from the city center to their home on the outskirts and back again, by literalizing and emphasizing such movements with mobile camerawork, and by juxtaposing such movement with scenes and images of stasis and waiting, The Last Black Man in San Francisco (henceforth LBMSF) articulates the routinized commutes and fraught feelings of place and displacement experienced by the Black residents currently trying to remain in the gentrifying, highly unequal, and increasingly white city. At the same time, through its locations and embeddedness in Black neighborhoods, the film links such present Black movements and erasures to longstanding histories of Black displacement, offering a parable of Black home-making and home-lessness in San Francisco. Composed as a “love letter and eulogy” to the filmmakers’ rapidly changing hometown and own feelings of dislocation, LBMSF lyrically explores loss and belonging around the Black people and communities being pushed out. Capturing the city’s houses, landscapes, and Black bodies and neighborhoods before and as they disappear, the film considers who can belong, who can remain, and who can call San Francisco home when such questions are dictated by income and race, and what is lost in the process.[1]

Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot in San Francisco. Source: Los Angeles Times.

LBMSF was made by the multigenerational San Franciscans and real-life best friends, Jimmie Fails, who is African American, and Joe Talbot, who is white, in response to their experiences in the gentrifying city. Both developed the story from Fails’s memories of being forced out of his family’s Victorian home in the Fillmore neighborhood, the locus of San Francisco’s Black community in the 1950s and 1960s. In Talbot’s directorial debut, Fails plays his similarly displaced, slightly fictionalized namesake, Jimmie Fails IV. Jimmie remains connected to the beautiful “witch’s hat”-topped Fillmore home his family lost when he was a child, which he claims his grandfather built in the 1940s; though the house is now owned by a white couple, he continually shows up to paint the trim, weed the garden, and maintain the house. When it suddenly becomes vacant, Jimmie surreptitiously moves in with his best friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), reclaiming both the house and the home he defined himself around since childhood. Yet he is soon dislocated once again, when Mont reveals its true construction – by a white guy in the 1860s – and a skeezy white real estate agent ejects them to modernize and sell the multi-million dollar house for his own gentrification-fueled profits.

LBMSF is one of several recent films by a wave of contemporary Bay Area filmmakers addressing gentrification and race in the region.[2] These include Boots Riley’s dystopic, anti-capitalist Sorry to Bother You (2019) and Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada, 2018), which was similarly co-written by Black-white friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (who play versions of themselves); both are set in Oakland.[3] All three Black–directed or –co-created films avoid the didactic address typifying Hollywood “social problem films,” employing narrative elements that are surrealist (especially Sorry to Bother You – horse-men, anyone?) and non-classical (Blindspotting’s final spoken word monologue). Yet LBMSF is a particularly poetic response to the racial politics in the swiftly gentrifying Bay Area, speaking directly yet elegiacally to the dynamics of place, displacement, and home as they impact – and have long impacted – (especially poor) African Americans in San Francisco.

The late-1990s dot-com boom and the Silicon Valley-fueled Tech Boom 2.0 have made San Francisco one of America’s most expensive and unequal cities. As of 2018, the county’s top 5 percent of households earned $808,105 yearly; the lowest 20 percent made just $16,184, a disparity exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.[4] The rampant gentrification, soaring cost of living, and dire housing shortage has made living in San Francisco increasingly difficult and fueled an exodus of lower-income racial minorities. While people pay $1,200 a month for bunkbed pods and students build tiny homes in vans and trucks, more people are homeless in a city where “one out of every 11,600 residents…are actual billionaires.”[5] Marking the country’s third highest rate of homelessness, San Francisco reported 9,808 homeless people in 2019, an increase of more of more than 30 percent over two years.[6]

Directly addressing these realities, LBMSF exposes the range of homelessness produced by gentrification while highlighting its disproportionate impact on African Americans. Black people make up 40 percent of San Francisco’s homeless and a staggering 60 percent of Oakland’s, with most comprising what Elliott Jones describes as “locals who have lived in these cities for their entire lives and stay because of connections to the community.”[7] Among such individuals are Jimmie, who lives “doubled up” with Mont, sleeping on the floor of his converted-garage half-bedroom in Mont’s father’s house. Before that, Jimmie lived in his dad’s old car; now his buddy (Mike Epps) owns it and lives in it himself. The city’s homeless count also includes Jimmie’s dad (Rob Morgan), who lives in a dark, bleak SRO (single room occupancy) in the Tenderloin.

Rising housing costs are pushing people farther out, forcing them to relocate throughout the Bay Area (and beyond) and displacing Black people from East Bay areas like Oakland. This has made it even harder for Black people – particularly Black homeless and housing-insecure people like Jimmie and his father – to maintain a connection to their city, neighborhoods, and communities, or to remain at all. Animating these struggles in relation to histories of race, gentrification, and change in the city, LBMSF’s movements and locations link such present migrations and un-homings to San Francisco’s longstanding destruction of Black neighborhoods. Most Black residents arrived around WWII, coming from the South with the Great Migration to work in the shipyards. Restricted by redlining and racism, many settled in the Fillmore, where the internment of Japanese Americans had created available housing. Over the decades, the growing Black community developed an economic and cultural center whose thriving jazz scene made it the Harlem of the West.[8] Yet redevelopment destroyed the diverse, largely Black neighborhood; “urban renewal” programs between the 1950s and the 1970s demolished Black homes, devastated businesses, and pushed residents as far out as Oakland.

Using Jimmie’s story of home/lessness to speak to such histories, LBMSF signals the breakup, evacuation, and resulting spread of Black communities across the region by showing how Jimmie’s family became geographically dispersed, dis-located, and disconnected from each other after losing the Fillmore house. Everyone but Jimmie’s father, with whom he has a distant, contentious relationship, has been pushed from the city center to its outskirts, or beyond the city entirely. Jimmie lives with Mont and his father, Allen (Danny Glover) in Bayview-Hunters Point, a predominantly Black area on the city’s eastern edge known as the “Most Isolated Neighborhood in San Francisco.” His aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) lives in what Jimmie calls “bum-fuck,” which is actually Crockett, in Contra Costa County, one of several East Bay cities where low-income African Americans have relocated over the last decades. Requiring a ride on the Bay Area Rapid Transit and a walk through waist-high weeds to reach, the film’s Crockett is marked by a rurality signaling its literal and figurative remove from San Francisco proper. The sense of difference, and distance, between the urban neighborhood where Jimmie grew up and the more suburban, isolated space where such Black families have relocated is heightened by the squat, white stucco house Wanda lives in. The style contrasts jarringly with the lush colors, verticality, and personalized details of the character-filled houses and hilly streets “in the city.” Jimmie’s mother is even farther dispersed, her connection to her son and the city so dislocated that Jimmie didn’t even know where she was living. This makes her (re)appearance in the city and Jimmie’s life, during a chance meeting on the bus, all the more surprising, and a little sad.

This bus scene is just one of many highlighting physical movement and transportation throughout the city. Indeed, LBMSF is suffused with images of mobility, especially recurring scenes, often without dialogue, of Jimmie and Mont moving through urban space. Steadicam, tracking, and swooping crane shots convey a sense of velocity, dynamism, and forward momentum as they showcase the young Black men walking, running, riding, and skateboarding through San Francisco. The most striking and repeated of these are the insistently horizontal tracking shots that move in parallel with the men, bringing the viewer alongside them like another friend, capturing and emphasizing their movement down the street. Sometimes Mont comedically runs alongside Jimmie as he skateboards; other times they ride together, pushing off in delightful union. Jimmie gracefully slaloms down San Francisco’s iconic hills on his skateboard, an eloquent movement and embeddedness-in-place highlighted in epic long shots; or he careens down the steep slopes, curving dramatically until crashing, a visceral momentum captured by the camera racing behind him. While savoring the men’s movement itself, such scenes also testify to an intimacy with the city. Eschewing San Francisco’s picture-postcard locations, they signal Jimmie and Mont’s deep-rooted knowledge of its roads and routes, revealing them as truly at home here. This is a reflection of the filmmakers, who wrote their own favorite walks into the film, made the same journeys scouting locations in the rapidly changing landscape, and produced a map immortalizing their “atlas of selected walks, mom & pop shops, make-out hideaways, cathedrals of cinema, fallen heroes, surviving institutions and more in the era of gentrification.”

LBMSF persistently tracks Jimmie and Mont’s movement horizontally, left-to-right or right-to-left, across the screen as they make their way into the city and back out to Bayview, rhythmically charting their movement from periphery to center and vice versa. In the film’s geographic and emotional logics, this “center” is quite literal, including neighborhoods like the Fillmore and the Mission, where Mont and Jimmie work – as a fishmonger and nurse in a senior care facility, respectively – and which are currently at the heart of the city’s gentrification and minority displacement. Whether singular or layered in episodic montages, these scenes of transit convey the distance and time Jimmie and Mont must spend commuting to and from their low-wage jobs, the great traversals of space necessitated by continuing to (try to) remain in the city as it gentrifies. Yet the two also make these journeys because of the Fillmore house, with the habitual, repetitive movements there and back signaling the gravitational force linking Jimmie to it. Embodying everything it signifies to him as a home, and standing as a testament to the (vanishing) Black history and presence in San Francisco, Jimmie is unable to leave the house or define himself without it.

Underwriting this stuck-ness – echoed in the Greek chorus of young Black men gathered at the same spot outside Mont’s house every day, having the same conversations – LBMSF juxtaposes its scenes of heightened movement with images of stillness, stasis, and liminal waiting. One recurrent Waiting for Godot scenario shows Jimmie and Mont sitting on their Bayview lawn, waiting for a bus that is always late and often never comes at all. A naked man joins Jimmie in a similar tableaux at a bus stop downtown, decorously laying down plastic before sitting and asking about the wait. Jimmie’s unfazed response of “hella long, bro” seems both literal and existential. Even the highly mobile camerawork itself integrates this juxtaposition, with slow motion cinematography interrupting and expanding the fluid motions and sweeping sense of momentum as the men move throughout the city. The stylized slow motion captures the gentrification-driven tension they feel between wanting to stay and being forced to go, moving by choice and because they have no choice, the deep familiarity of home and the unrecognizability of its new inhabitants and buildings.

While the Godot-style scenes speak to the unreliability of the public transit meant to serve such working-class urban residents, the moments of stillness, stuck-ness, and endless waiting also indicate the decreased social and economic mobility marking most of the low-income Black residents left in San Francisco. While the city’s middle class has shrunk across all racial groups, the Black middle and upper classes have been particularly hard hit. As such households leave the city for more affordable parts of the Bay Area (and beyond), the city’s remaining Black population has become overwhelmingly poor and concentrated in public housing and segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.[9] The 65 percent of Black households living in such areas in 2015 – up from 41 percent in 2000 – suffer from a loss, and lack, of resources and social services and a heightened risk of “adverse health outcomes.”[10] LBMSF indicates these realities and their longstanding histories through the poisonous, surreally four-eyed fish and polluted water outside Mont’s home, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated one of the ten most polluted federal properties.[11] In the 1950s and 1960s, pollution from the Naval shipyards compounded substandard (public) housing and over-policing in the largely Black Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, causing heightened levels of illness even after they closed (and increased unemployment and poverty) in the 1970s and 1980s.[12]

While the shipyard was added to the EPA’s Superfund list in 1989, no cleanup plan was proposed until 2019.[13] Yet this late-coming investment will neither serve nor redress the area’s Black residents; instead, like previous “urban renewal” policies, it is fueling redevelopment and gentrification that is pushing them out of one of the last predominantly Black – and affordable – neighborhoods. Since filming, the two empty lots bordering the nineteenth-century Bayview farmhouse used as Mont’s home have been built up, new condos have gone in across the street, obstructing the view, and a luxury development advertised as “The Reimagined Shipyards” listed $1.3 million townhouses[14]. At the same time, much of the city’s little remaining public housing, where the majority of Black residents now live, has been torn down. LBMSF captured two such locations just before they disappeared. The Hotel Metropolis – used as Jimmie’s dad’s SRO – was being turned into a 155-unit condo building while Bayview’s Alice Griffith housing projects were demolished right after filming. These provided the home from which a local woman (played by one-time “candy lady” Dakecia Chappell) sells candy to her Bayview neighbors. Like the film overall, the brief scene writes Black bodies and spaces into cultural imaginaries and cinematic depictions of San Francisco while visually preserving the homes and communities such low-income Black residents inhabit, before and as they disappear.[15]

As such locations indicate, LBMSF critically highlights the displacement and erasure facing Black San Franciscans as gentrification and inequality continue to expand. While 54 percent of the city’s low-income households of color lived in areas currently gentrifying or at risk of gentrification in 2019, the same was true for 66 percent of Black households.[16] Thus, as LBMSF shows, San Francisco’s Black population will continue to shrink. The Urban Development Project reported the city lost almost 3,000 low-income Black households between 2000 and 2015, a 17 percent drop concentrated in Black neighborhoods.[17] Seventy-five percent of the Black households that moved in 2015 left San Francisco and nearly 30 percent of the low-income households of color who moved left the Bay Area entirely.[18] From a peak of 13 percent in 1970, Black residents now comprise less than 5 percent of the city’s population; while one in seven residents was Black in 1970, the ratio is now closer to one in twenty.[19]

Among those Black residents being forced out of the city, in the end, is Jimmie. After several displacements and repeatedly being rendered homeless, Jimmy gives up the house and the conception of home it represents and leaves San Francisco. As he ponders leaving, considering what he’s lost and will lose, Wanda insists, “It’s not your loss. It’s San Francisco’s. Fuck San Francisco.” The comment comes from a place of love, for her nephew and the city, and perhaps also speaks to her own feelings about relocating to Contra Costa County. For as Jimmie tells two white girls on the bus, “you can’t hate San Francisco unless you love it.” And Jimmie – like Fails and Talbot – loves San Francisco, even as the changing, increasingly-white city has become like, in Fails’s words, “a woman that I love but who doesn’t love me back.”[20] As such, their “love letter” includes the hatred Jimmie mentions and the rage underwriting Wanda’s “fuck,” a rage which visibly marks Jimmie’s desperate rowing against the Bay in his tableaux exit. Indeed, Talbot admits the film was “birthed in anger,” which they gradually toned down over five years of revising the screenplay.[21] Still, Fails insists, “we’re bitter, we’re jaded”; “the people who made the city what it is, I barely see them anymore. Everyone is gone, pushed out.”[22]

Importantly, LBMSF not only shows the loss that people like Jimmie feel when they (have to) leave, but also shows what San Francisco loses when it pushes such Black people out. Fails has described his own experiences being one of the last African Americans in the city, of seeing the Black people, communities, and racial diversity he grew up with disappear. Recalling the Duboce Park of his childhood as “blacker … like out of a Spike Lee flick or something: boom boxes and dice games. It wasn’t this … dog park,” Fails bemoans the strangeness of now being the “only Black” person there: “it’s crazy, like, sticking out like a sore thumb. Being black shouldn’t be a thing [here].”[23] Such comments show Fails’s feelings of being erased and displaced from his city, even as he remains, and what it means to no longer see people like himself in the place he grew up, the place he lives, loves, and calls home.

In this way, both LBMSF and its filmmakers testify to and condemn San Francisco’s racial (and cultural) homogenization as Black bodies, households, and communities are pushed farther out and belonging is increasingly defined by income and race. Extending Jimmie’s assertion that “people aren’t just one thing” to cities, Talbot admits his and Fails’s fear “that San Francisco is becoming more and more one thing,” where diverse communities and racially-mixed “friendships like ours won’t exist … When we were growing up it was so many things, so many different kinds of people. Being able to come together and form friendships and relationships was part of the experience of the city.”[24] Indeed, Jimmie’s departure leaves Mont alone, the “last Black man in San Francisco” with the friendship that defined his life, and the film, displaced. Thus, LBMSF – in its narrative and its production – becomes a kind of memorial to the city’s heterogeneity and diverse connections, along with what Talbot describes as “the real things that were lost … the people that made the city great who are no longer there.”[25] In this way, LBMSF’s slow motion not only elegizes the city’s displaced people, with particular resonance for low-income African Americans; it also captures the locations, neighborhoods, and dynamics that made the city home for them as they vanish. Thus the moments of stillness, of captured time and paused momentum, mark an attempt to slow down the pace of change in their city, to suspend the erasure of Black people, of people like them, of themselves. Though such displacements seem impossible to stop, The Last Black Man in San Francisco importantly renders Black lives and communities visible within such processes of gentrification as well as valued parts of the city, marking them as vital to the movements, residents, and communities that have defined it and made it home.

Jimmie leaving San Francisco; Mont left alone as the Last Black Man in San Francisco

[1] Mia Galuppo, “‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Filmmakers — and Childhood Friends — Reflect on Making First Feature,” Hollywood Reporter January 2, 2020, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/last-black-man-san-francisco-filmmakers-reflect-making-first-feature-1265332.

[2] Galuppo.

[3] Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy (2008) is an important precedent which addresses gentrification in San Francisco, as is Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013), which explores police brutality and racism in Oakland.

[4] Erica Hellerstein, “It’s Official: Bay Area Has Highest Income Inequality in California,” KQED, January 31, 2020, https://www.kqed.org/news/11799308/bay-area-has-highest-income-inequality-in-california).

[5] Gerrick D. Kennedy, “‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ and Capturing the Magic of Home and Fraternal Love,” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-mn-last-black-man-in-san-francisco-20190531-story.html.

[6] “Homeless Population,” City Performance Scorecards, sfgov.org, https://sfgov.org/scorecards/safety-net/homeless-population#:~:text=8%2C035%20homeless%20individuals%20were%20counted,time%20street%20and%20shelter%20count.&text=Under%20this%20previous%2C%20more%20expansive,30%25%20over%20the%202017%20count.

[7] Elliott Jones, “Op-Ed: Pandemic Likely to Accelerate Black Exodus from SF and Oakland,” SFist, October 23, 2020, https://sfist.com/2020/10/23/pandemic-likely-to-accelerate-black-exodus-from-san-francisco-oakland/.

[8] Thomas Fuller, “San Francisco’s Fading Black Presence, Captured on Film,” New York Times, June 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/movies/last-black-man-san-francisco.html; Thomas Fuller, “The Loneliness of Being Black in SF,” New York Times, July 20, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/us/black-exodus-from-san-francisco.html.

[9] Fuller, “Loneliness.”

[10] UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project and the California Housing Partnership, “Rising Housing Costs and Re-Segregation in San Francisco,” Urban Displacement Project, https://www.urbandisplacement.org/sites/default/files/images/sf_final.pdf, 1.

[11] “History of Bayview Hunters Point,” BVHP History Resources, bvoh.org, https://bvoh.org/culturehub/history-bvhp/.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Del Barco.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Chris Roberts, “Changing Too Fast for Film: A Tour of ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Locations with Filmmaker Joe Talbot,” San Francisco Curbed, August 1, 2019, https://sf.curbed.com/2019/8/1/20732560/last-black-man-san-francisco-locations-joe-talbot; Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, “Secrets, Struggles and Cameos in ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco,’” San Francisco Examiner, July 27, 2019, https://www.sfexaminer.com/news-columnists/secrets-struggles-and-cameos-in-last-black-man-in-san-francisco/.

[16] James Brasuell, “Gentrification and Race in San Francisco Bay Area,” Planetizen, August 14, 2019. https://www.planetizen.com/news/2019/08/105725-gentrification-and-race-san-francisco-bay-area.

[17] Urban Displacement Project, “San Francisco,” 2-4.

[18] Ibid., 1; Urban Displacement Project, 3.

[19] Fuller, “Loneliness.”

Such displacements are also pushing African Americans out of the suburbs. Oakland witnessed a 25% drop in its Black population over the last ten years; white residents are once again the majority (Jones).

[20] Fuller, “Loneliness.”

[21] Ryan Coleman, “‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Joe Talbot Injects His Changing Home City’s History Into His Feature Debut,” Moviemaker, March 23, 2020, https://www.moviemaker.com/last-black-man-in-san-francisco-director-joe-talbot/.

[22] Galuppo; Kennedy.

[23] Del Barco.

[24] Utichi; Coleman.

[25] Coleman.

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