Négritude in The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Still from Last Black Man in San Francisco.

In The Last Black Man in San Francisco—the 2019 surreal documentary with bravado performances and indelible faces—a young white woman says something about hating the city by the Bay. One of the black characters adds that you can’t hate it without first loving it. These days, San Francisco is a city you can love and hate in about equal measures: love it for its trade union and working class history; and hate it for its contemporary collaboration with corporations and the super rich, who don’t give a rat’s ass about its heritage of resistance.

Forty years ago, if someone had made a movie with the title “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” he or she might have been accused of wanting to rid all of the city’s 49th square miles (give or take a mile or two) of its African-American population, which kept the shipyards afloat for decades, and contributed to its rich jazz scene. Today, the idea of the “last black man in San Francisco” reflects the reality that the African-American population is shrinking fast, and that one day, not that far in the future, it might actually reach zero, or close to it.

The power of the film derives not only from its black aesthetic, but also from the sobering fact that African-Americans have been forced out of neighborhoods, like the Fillmore, they once shaped and defined. In The Last Black Man in San Francisco—which explores the themes of dispossession and repossession, flight and fight—black is beautiful, especially the black faces of the young men who fill the screen. The faces of black women and older black men, including that of veteran actor, Danny Glover, are also beautiful. The camera focuses on them lovingly, and as though mesmerized.

There’s hardly any violence or sex, and certainly none of the brutality that’s featured on the screen in the 1993 movie Menace II Society that reinforces stereotypes about young black men as killers and gangsters. If The Last Black Man in San Francisco has an antecedent it’s the 1964 film Nothing But a Man, staring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, which tells a love story set against the background of southern racism. Still, The Last Black Man offers no romance between a man and a woman, and nothing as graphic as the blatent racism of the segregated South. If there’s love in the movie, it’s love for the city and its old Victorians, and the love among boyz n the hood.

Rarely has an American movie embodied so organically the concept of “Négritude,” as defined by Aimé Césaire, the world famous twentieth-century anti-colonialist, sometimes Communist, African poet. “Négritude,” Césaire explained, “created a revolution: in the darkness of the great silence.” It gave expression, he added, “to a voice of revolt, a voice of resentment no doubt, but also of fidelity, a voice of freedom, and first and foremost, a voice for the retrieved identity.”

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails—who also created the story, along with the director Joe Talbot—play two young African American men who find their world closing-in around them. They aim to hold on to a small piece of it, and retrieve that which has been lost. In the process they make art, collide with the white powers-that-be, including a real estate agent, and rub shoulders with young African-American men who belong to the same generation and who stand on street corners and do little more than call one another “nigger.”

Director Joe Talbot is a fifth-generation San Franciscan and a white man, though he wears his whiteness lightly if at all.  The white characters, including a goofy tourist guide played by punk rocker, Jello Biafra, aren’t as fully developed as the black characters. They tend to be one-dimensional, but they provide clear boundaries for Fails and his buddy, Allen, to cross or not to cross, The white characters, including a nudist who flaunts his nudity, seem to be able to do anything they want to do without hitting a wall. The black characters, especially Fails and Allen, only have as much mobility as their skateboards and their own imaginations allow them.

Those boards become symbols of both their bondage and their freedom; in one crucial scene Fails smashes his board as though breaking the chains that bind him. One character in the film invites his listeners to “break the boxes” and “see beyond the stars we are born into.”

Aimé Césaire would understand that poetic statement and applaud a film that bears watching more than once, and that reveals more sides to the characters on each viewing. The credits for the film run to several hundred people. It’s as though Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails had to create a mini city of their own to make The Last Black Man in San Francisco and to expand the cosmos itself.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.