By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
Jimmie Fails has helped to bring to the big screen his pain and struggles around gentrification of his childhood neighborhood in San Francisco for all to see.
With “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” filmmaker Joe Talbot has used the story of Fails, one of his childhood friends, to bring a lyrical and lovingly crafted ode to friendship, family and the frustrations of living in an area whose racial makeup is rapidly changing, as it is in many neighborhoods in Chicago.
Jimmie spent his early childhood living in a sprawling Victorian house in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, which in the mid 20th century was a beacon for Blacks who had fled the Jim Crow South and had taken up roots after Japanese homeowners were forced into internment camps by the U.S. government after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
One of the more prominent lines toward the end of the film is “You can’t hate it unless you love it,” referring to the city. I liken this mantra to my native neighborhood of Englewood. How can outsiders say that they hate Englewood if they have never loved it?
Now Jimmie’s old neighborhood and Englewood are not without their faults, and my family has been in our home for 60 years. “The Last Black Man” examines what is lost when a person is no longer able to live in the home where he grew up and others are so freely financially able to take up residence, put in new open islands, upgrade the window treatments, and install marble countertops in the bathrooms.
Now all these improvements didn’t take place in the beautiful, multi-level house featured in “The Last Black Man”—as depicted in the film, Jimmie would know because he regularly comes back to tend to the garden and paint the exterior window ledges—but situations similar to these are taking place across the country—all under the guise of gentrification—and at the cost of displaced minorities.
Throughout the film, Jimmie and his best friend Mont, played by Jonathan Majors, try to reclaim the house built by Jimmie’s grandfather after the latest white owners are kicked out due to an inheritance dispute. This pushes the two into a trek of discovery, while facing daily ridicule about their relationship and intentions from a so-called “Greek chorus” made up of unproductive local brothers. In the end, even their tight bond is tested.
“The Last Black Man” is part fantasy and part documentary, and the stroll through the city’s neighborhoods and the cinematography is magnificent. But the message is clear—a person’s heart and being is held not only in a home’s brick, wood or nails, etc., but in the memories that are made during childhood that are forever wedded to those experiences.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a feat of personal storytelling about the meaning and magic of home, the importance of community and the stories we tell ourselves in order to become who we are.
I was able to attend a recent free screening of this movie at the Harper Theatre, which was hosted by A24 Films, Arts Bank Cinema and the Rebuild Foundation. Tichina Arnold stars as Jimmie’s aunt Wanda, Danny Glover stars as Montgomery’s grandfather named Grandpa Allen, Rob Morgan stars as Jimmie’s estranged father, and Michael Epps stars as Bobby, among other cast members.
The film originally played at North Side venues but should come to more local theaters soon. Check your local listings.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book info, [email protected].