H Street in Washington, D.C. is a microcosm of America: Destroyed during the four days of rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; ravaged as the crack epidemic took over in the late ‘80s. Now, H Street is hemmed together by the remaining Black-owned businesses. Poverty and privilege live adjacent, gentrification, and marginalization within the same block. Rapid-fire cultural displacement has come for Washington, D.C., a city once called “Chocolate City,” the first majority-Black city in America.
As a D.C. native, there’s the desire to own real estate in my city before it’s “too late” and continue to actively amplify the culture here. I feel myself touring a city that’s quickly becoming unrecognizable. On H Street, there’s a $200 million, 2.2-mile streetcar that begins at Union Station, passing Whole Foods, luxury high-rise apartment buildings, boutique fitness studios, restaurants, a carryout, a Check ‘N Go, a beauty supply store, a barbershop, and a Family Dollar. The last stop on the ride is on Benning Road, across from Langston Golf Course, named after John Mercer Langston, one of the first African Americans to be elected into public office. Remnants of old D.C. are found in buildings and dwindling as longtime residents work to preserve their history and place. A struggle almost every American city can relate to.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a love letter to its city. The film, written by Jimmie Fails IV and Joe Talbot, is a semi-autobiographical account of Fails’ fight for a home in present-day San Francisco. With his father, Jimmie grew up in a beautiful Victorian sanctuary with a witch’s hat. According to family lore, it was built by his grandfather in 1946. When the neighborhood got too expensive, they were forced to move. Now, Jimmie wants his space back. Much of the film centers on this goal.
In the pursuit of justice, home and the city are characters all their own. Jimmie often returns to his grandfather’s place to paint and tend to the garden as if the property were his own. One day, he meets the current residents, an older white couple, liberal enough not to call the cops on him. Things shift when Jimmie discovers that the couple has lost the house in an estate sale. Now he must naively navigate his way through the bureaucratic process of becoming an owner.
In the interim, Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery (played by the idiosyncratic Jonathan Majors) squat. There’s a scene where a group of Segway-riding tourists led by a white tour guide stops outside. The tour guide confidently lets the group know that the residence was built much earlier than when Jimmie believes his grandfather built it. He interjects to let the group know it was built in 1946 by his grandfather, Jimmie Fails. The telling of his story is the first step in reclaiming the address as his own.
Since Jimmie’s family lost their grandfather’s house in the ‘90s, his fragmented semblance of home has left him a nomad in his city. Displacement meant living in the projects, in a car, a group home, and now with Montgomery. Jimmie’s fight for refuge is also Montgomery’s. Their history, legacy, and culture are all intertwined within a now-expensive Victorian property, in a now-gentrified neighborhood. He’s determined to get his place back—both the house and a sense of purpose and identity in San Francisco. When a neighborhood is gentrified, history is also taken and reimagined, and those who have lived there the longest are tasked with finding belonging in a set of circumstances outside of their control.
“It’s a very strange feeling to be from somewhere but to feel more and more alien in that place,” said Talbot, who directed the film. Aiding in the film’s storytelling is the cinematography which verges on magical realism as it follows Fails and Montgomery as they skate through the Tenderloin, the Mission District, and Hunter Point/Bayview giving us a tour of the hilly city.
“The stoop culture was bigger when we were kids, people were hanging outside and talking. It felt like you knew your neighbors,” Talbot recently told Bright Wall/Dark Room. Jimmie and Talbot became friends while attending middle school. Jimmie grew up on Army Street, not far away from the Mission District where Talbot was raised. The two neighborhoods are considered a dividing line between low-income residents and a neighborhood made up of various ethnic backgrounds.
Jimmie grew up in the Army Street Housing Projects, a predominately African American section of the Mission District, later bulldozed and turned into small townhouses. Outside of the Mission District, there is Bernal Heights, a diverse community. “It’s always a lot more complicated than what you can fit into just a couple of sentences. It was in a lot of ways a melting pot,” Talbot said while describing the communities that bridged their childhood friendships.
Eventually, Talbot and Jimmie began taking stock of the changes going on in their neighborhood and started working on writing the film. Five years later, they released a trailer of Jimmie telling his grandfather’s story of owning real estate in the Fillmore District, once considered the Harlem of The West. The trailer was posted to Talbot’s Vimeo page and quickly caught the interest of the producer, Khaliah Neal, an Oakland native who came on board to help Talbot and Fails to refine their script.
The film opens with the stark image of people in hazmat suits cleaning up unexplained toxins in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, a largely African American neighborhood, where housing projects were built next to a toxic waste facility. Montgomery lives in the neighborhood with his grandfather (the wise Danny Glover). A pastor (rapper Willie Hen) preaches to a congregation of none, loud enough for everyone to hear. He is a poster child of marginalization: his daily sermon is a reminder of what happens when the necessities of a community are overlooked. While the movie largely centers on the relationship between a young man and his home, it breaks down the complexities of environmental racism, black masculinity, identity, and belonging.
Bayview-Hunters Point has historically served as a dumping ground for nearly 1/3 of San Francisco’s toxic waste sites. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the health of residents has been heavily impacted by the ongoing environmental contamination of the community’s soil and water with particulates, pesticides, petrochemicals, heavy metals, asbestos, radioactive materials. With the majority of San Francisco exorbitantly priced, this neighborhood became one of the few affordable options for low-income residents to live.
Gentrification can’t be over-simplified to a few new restaurants with neon pink lights, bars, and overpriced cookie-cutter Ikea appliances apartment buildings. It’s about a system of inequality that has far-reaching implications. Nearly a year after the film’s release, the movie has served as a community bridge builder, unveiling, and humanizing the people that developers, gentrifiers, and realtors often ignore when making decisions.
“There has to be a way to have all of the natives come together and have a meeting and talk about how we can preserve our community,” Fails said as he spoke on an evolving solution to what feels inevitable. “I think by preserving the art and the culture and sticking together as natives and educating the gentrifiers on the culture and stuff like that, but gentrifiers aren’t always welcoming, so I think we have to show them,” he continued.
Interwoven throughout the film, Montgomery is writing a play meant to tell Kofi’s (Jamal Trulove) story. He’s the ringleader of a group of guys who are bit profane, tattoo adorned, and uninterested in respectability politics. Unfortunately, Kofi’s life is cut short after he gets into a scuffle with someone. More often than not, scripts villainize these characters. Both on- and off-screen dudes who hang out on the street are seen as men who “fit the description,” without a single introduction. Here we’re introduced to Kofi’s many dimensions. Kofi spent a period living in the same teenage group-home as Jimmie. His hypermasculine presentation can be seen as a form of protection from the numerous obstacles that can overcome black men growing up in a hotbed of violence exacerbated by gentrification. Kofi was inspired by Jamal Trulove, whom Fails and Talbot met while casting for child extras. Trulove was wrongfully sentenced to prison for 50 years after being accused of murdering his friend. He served six years and was acquitted in 2015. Today, he’s picking back up with his acting and music career. In many ways, The Last Black Man In San Francisco was his opportunity to tell his story.
Fails wonders if his grandfather’s spot saved him from ending up in the same predicament if he could have ended up a fatality to gentrification. Having a shelter is about safety. In Kofi’s memory, Montgomery puts the play on in the “witches hat” of Jimmie’s grandfather’s house. The play unveils how dimensional Kofi was and admonishes a diverse audience of attendees to allow one another room for multiplicity. During the play, Montgomery reveals what he’s learned from the realtor: that Fails’ grandfather didn’t construct the property, instead, it was built in the 1850s, according to the deed on the house. Fails’ dream of claiming this home as a part of his heritage is shattered; home remains an abandoned concept. His father (played in the film as Rob Morgan) lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel, his aunt lives a ways away, he’s unsure of where his mother lives, and he’s done living with Montgomery. With no other options left, he gets into a boat and rows away.
Washington, D.C. celebrated its second annual D.C. Natives Day in May, meant to put a spotlight on those who were born and raised in the city. It’s a chance to make sure voices are heard in a rapidly developing city, to make sure we’re defining the multiplicity of our home, made up of more than an indigenous sound, keywords only locals know, and mambo sauce. It’s about holding the line when it comes to our history, legacy, and culture.