The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jimmie Fails and Montgomery Allen are Estragon and Vladimir. Only they’re not waiting for Godot; they’re waiting for the bus. Neither comes. Unlike Samuel Beckett’s two heroes, Fails and Allen get up and leave. But, unfortunately, they still can’t move.
Jimmie Fails plays Jimmie Fails, a young man trying to form his future by reclaiming his family’s past. Jonathan Majors plays Allen, a fishmonger by day and a playwright by night. Fails lives with Allen and Allen’s grandfather (Danny Glover) in a cramped house south of Hunters Point but spends most of his time in the Mission District, touching up and maintaining his grandfather’s home. Something the owners of the house (Maximilienne Ewalt and Andy Roy) really wish Fails would stop doing.
That house, a magnificent Victorian structure topped with a witches’ hat, is the story of America. Pre-1942, this neighbor was almost entirely Japanese. Then FDR signed Executive Order 9066 and Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes, interned in war camps, and relocated following the war. When Fails’ grandfather returned from the war, he moved into the empty neighborhood as, according to Fails, became the first black man in San Francisco. But then Fails’ father (Rob Morgan) lost the house and Fails lost his place.
Consuming gentrification followed, as did skyrocketing property values. Now Fails is on the outside looking in at an American Dream always in view but forever out of reach.
Directed by Joe Talbot (who wrote the script with Rob Richert based on a story by Talbot and Fails) The Last Black Man in San Francisco is outstanding, dramatic, and poetic. There’s a Greek Chorus, a Haight-Ashbury singer (Mike Marshall) — whose rendition of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” is beautifully haunting — and a cast of characters so authentic they feel like they were pulled off Market Street.
Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra captures them and the city as if they are one. Using long lenses, Newport-Berra compresses San Francisco’s towering verticality with precision, making the world around Fails at once claustrophobic and spacious. In one shot, Fails rides his skateboard down an endless hill and barely seems to move. The city has him. In another, the camera follows Fails as he speeds faster and faster down a road with no end.
It’s a dichotomy Fails loves and loathes, and it’s a feeling shared by many who live in a grand city. His troubled past is also the city’s troubled past. His problematic present is the city’s problematic present. His future is uncertain, and so is the city. The story of progress in America is also the story of displacement, and now Fails is the one feeling displaced.
“I can’t go on like this,” Estragon says.
“That’s what you think,” Vladimir replies.