Lyric Review: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ explores purpose in society

Ty Davis

In almost grotesquely short terms, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. Lavishly constructed from the acting to the music, not a single part of the film was made without love and attention to grace.

Ad

The story centers around two artistic black men living on the outskirts of San Francisco, Jim and Montgomery, who don’t quite fit in with other black men around them but find companionship in each other. As Montgomery writes a play based on the world around him, Jim attempts to acquire and restore a house built by his grandfather that is now owned by a different family but is empty because of a family dispute.

In the midst of the owner’s family dispute, Jim attempts to squat the house while trying to find a way to own it. For context to the film, the city of San Francisco is currently going through a myriad of issues regarding sustainable living due to the influx of tech companies, as well as other industries.

A side effect of this is an intense wealth divide between those in these massive industries and those outside of them, and the city is not adjusting to this divide. For example, an apartment that would cost $1,000 in most major cities would cost around three times more in San Francisco.

In addition, San Francisco is also accommodating this influx of people through intense gentrification, which is only raising property values and making the cost of living go up. This creates a playground for those that can afford San Francisco and a financial vertical climb for those who are outside of the industries the city accommodates.

While these issues are present in the film, my favorite part is that no part of the film will explain this to you because the focus should be on the characters. These social systems are present in the film, but they exist as components in the characters’ lives.

No one is going to stop the film dead in its tracks to espouse on why gentrification is bad or why the city needs to accommodate people of all backgrounds — you should already know what’s bad about these characters’ situations.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is playing at The Lyric Cinema

You should be able to figure this out for yourself, not so you can educate yourself on the topic, but so you can better understand the struggles of the characters. It demands you know these topics so that theme of the film can be elevated by your knowledge on the subject.

It doesn’t need to have a full diatribe on gentrification because it expects you to watch the cause and effect of these social forces and asks you to ponder on them yourself. So while some may see this as laziness, I refuse to lambaste a film that asks the viewer to think deeper than just what’s in front of them.

But the film is so much more than the institutions they have to wrestle with. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is not about goals but more about the stories and ideas of our goals and what they say about who we are. The house is not so much the important motivator, it rather symbolizes Jim’s grandfather and the relationship they shared. The story displays a fall from grace when they lost the house and the hope of an ascendancy back to grace when they restore it.

Without spoiling anything, the film’s meditation on gentrification and Jim’s personal journey do culminate in a coherent thesis. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is ultimately about how we go forward each day. Do we surrender to reality and thus never aspire for anything? Do we chase our dreams fully but risk destroying ourselves and living in a fantasy world? Or is the best answer a compromise between what we want and what the world will allow us? And ultimately, how do you make that compromise in a world that has made it clear it does not care about you?

Ad

Ty Davis can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or Twitter @tydavisACW.