“In the Christian imagination, where you live gets equal billing with what you believe. Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows…Biblical religion has a low tolerance for ‘great ideas’ or ‘sublime truths’ or ‘inspirational thoughts’ apart from the places in which they occur. God’s great love and purposes for us are worked out in the messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, working with us…where we are…and not where we would like to be.”
-Eugene Peterson, in the forward to Sidewalks in the Kingdom by Eric O. Jacobsen
“If we learn to see and even love these urban features, we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed”
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, despite its provocative and apocalyptic title, is a meandering and tender eulogy about a number of things. The film follows a man named Jimmie Fails (played by the man of the same name, on whose life story the film is based on) as he squats in the home he lived in as a kid and tries to find a way to buy it back for himself. Jimmie’s love for the house (and San Francisco at large) is of the purest form and is possibly only rivaled by the love of his friend Monty (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright who supports Jimmie until he discovers the truth about the house. The film watches the characters navigate this increasingly strange and hostile city that they love but are being priced out of. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a movie unlike any other movie that has come out this year, and I’d like to look at a few more reasons why.
In American filmmaking, time is treated like it is in our society- something to be hastened and exploited and used to its very last drop. Time efficiency is considered great storytelling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t, and there becomes a point where efficiency in storytelling means the filmmaker may use her characters more as tools than as reflections of humans. In TLBMISF, the camera gazes upon human faces and human bodies in a way that aims to cut straight to the character’s humanity, and it does not hasten to do this or have an agenda. At one point Monty, after being berated by some men on the street, says to Jimmie, “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them because they’re mean to me? That’s silly.” This is the attitude the film takes. Some characters that seem to have no narrative function turn out to be of great importance. Some characters really do not have any greater plot function, but all are treated with care and dignity by the camera. I’ve talked a few times before about having an empathetic camera, but TLBMISF exemplifies the concept more fully than any other film I’ve seen. This is true visual storytelling and a better form of storytelling efficiency.
An unexpected consequence of this narrative empathy was that this became a stressful viewing experience for me because there was no one to really root against, so there was no sense of, “Of course this bad guy will be defeated, good conquers evil!” I was constantly in suspense about what was going to happen, and the film continued to go in unexpected directions. I felt this anxiety early on because Jimmie and Monty are so dang likable, even when they’re not doing likable things. It’s impossible not to want them to succeed, and panic at all of the clear obstacles in their ways.
Speaking of Monty and Jimmie, in films with friendship in the middle, one character often takes an extreme comedic relief role and the other plays the straight man. They have to be extremes to keep things interesting, and their quippy rapport is a shorthand to express their closeness. Monty and Jimmie don’t fit into these categories in any fashion. They have their differences, but the performances are so lived-in and organic, the chemistry between the leads so effortless, and the physical closeness they often share is so comfortable that there is no need to have any kind of shorthand or tropes to establish the relationship. And refreshingly, the film feels no need to “no homo” the character’s bond at any point, further exuding the confidence the film feels about its own presence.
The quotes at the beginning of this review are from Sidewalks in the Kingdom, a book about Christianity and new urbanism. In it, author Eric O. Jacobsen argues what the Bible argues- that Christianity is not solely the realm of the head and heart, but has to be enacted on the streets of where we live, and increasingly, that place is a city. The Bible begins in the Garden of Eden but ends in the Kingdom of God, pointedly shown to be a city.
TLBMISF sees the city, in this case, San Francisco, as the Bible sees cities. And as already discussed, it also sees people in the same way. As Jimmie tells some newcomers who already dislike San Francisco, “You can’t hate it unless you love it.” As Christians, we cannot recognize the problems in the world and in our cities until we at first truly, truly love it.
I am writing this review and including these quotes because I encourage you to watch this film, and I think watching it in this framework will be helpful, thought-provoking, and hopefully, rewarding. It was impossible for me not to consider these things when I saw it. TLBMISF is not pointedly a spiritual film, but like all good movies, it illuminates truth. Christians are called to love the earth we are on, and work for its benefit and glory. If only we all saw the spaces we occupy and the communities we are a part of in the way Jimmie and Monty see San Francisco. If only we advocated for the restoration of the historical homes of our cities, called for walkable streets and sidewalks, for justice in our legal systems and in our economic policies, and for thoughtfulness and care put into the urban renewal that is not only gentrifying San Francisco but all of the United States.
In other words, we can and should get to a point where we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed.