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Give The Griot A Room: A Broke Radical Reviews 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

by Milton Goosby

"This film depicts the stages of growth, stagnation and damnation of black people in America, based on our journey through the hell that is democracy."
A still from The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019) starring Jimmie Falls and Danny Glover
'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' (2019) (Still)

When the film opens we're presented with black San Francisco, colorful hair, cadence, shades of brown, and black.

A forgotten San Francisco, save when homelessness, pollution or police brutality is reported.

A raw city with a polluted bay and toxic fog shrouding the surrounding neighborhood.

As people in hazmat suits roam about a black man confronts them. "Why do they have suits and we don't?" he shouts. "They got a plan for us!".

While waiting on the bus, Jimmy and his friend Montgomery half listen to the street griot's speech. Musing on whether to stay or go.

Placement, abuse, and happenstance

Starring Tichina Arnold, Jimmie Falls, Danny Glover, Rob Morgan, and a groundbreaking role featuring Jonathan Majors, this beautifully shot film weaves a tale of individuals living on the financial outskirts of a stolen metropolis.

Lives and futures are shaped by a techno-global economy that disowns the impoverished; as spoken by Mike Epps' character, "You don't ever really own anything."

Not only denied ownership, but subjugated in such a way that the most basic needs come with a price tag. The gentrifiers make sure that the cost of living is too high.


Placement, abuse and happenstance has allowed Jimmy to continue moving passively through the world. Without ownership, no claim to make save the aftermath of struggle on his face.

Days measured by pilgrimages to his childhood home. Jimmy is searching for pieces of himself, treading water against instability due to inflation, predatory practices, and desperate decisions.

He wants to believe that the system ultimately failed his family, that his encroachment upon the property is founded in legacy. That despite all the fast talk from his father, this house is a truth his grandpa manifested.

The new house owners make allowances for the minor repairs he takes on during his visit. Dripping nice white liberal onto the scene, saying the police be won't involved if he just went away.

When an inheritance dispute causes the house to be vacant, Jimmy and Montgomery take up residence. This is the hope Jimmy has held onto, a desire to have walls within which to express his joy.

Securing roots. For the uprooted, this is the lie we tell ourselves as we fight to hold onto square feet, or defend our worship of flawed fathers. Embrace rugged individualism like the shady real estate agent, or accept that the game is rigged. Thus taking up various cons like James Sr.

Barony in the land of the $7 taco

But this film is less about the failed hustles of Jimmy's father and more about the displacement of an entire people.

It's about how we're forced to adapt or disassociate when in the financial grip of the state or urban areas coded as wastelands. Unfit to traverse, a way station for those in limbo.

Further to this, once the world has been sufficiently sated on decades of media misrepresentation, the hood is deemed without value.

Once the decay is just ripe enough, developers con their way back into the city after years of white flight. They bring Whole Foods, Starbucks and new age, ergonomic thought spaces for the wave of urban adventures looking to express their values over $7 tacos.

Still: 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' (2019)
Still: 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' (2019)

The interlopers tread as though the remnants of the city are an inconvenience to them. Just as the settler justified his savagery with manifest destiny. In one telling scene, Jimmy ingratiates himself to a new neighbor, who later whispers, "What the fuck was that?".

The man could no more understand Jimmy's dissociation than he could name a memory of Kofi. Land barony is just as narrow now as it was during America's infancy. To him, Jimmy is the interloper.

Fighting for a place to call our own

Montgomery functions as lookout and emotional support system - aware that Jimmy has been broken more thoroughly by a life in constant transition from familiarity.

Montgomery is anchored by an urge to re-trace the journey of his ancestors; he can also be counted as a griot, recording the rites of passage that mark his disappearing neighborhood.

Jimmy's desire to claim ownership pushes him further to the shoreline. Montgomery, the watcher, becomes the focus.

The lighting and camera angles shape mythos with the curve of Montgomery's longing. Or perhaps an afrofuturistic view of a world where blackness could be cast and cooled in sync with the rhythm of our remembrance. For the right to be, because dissolution is threatening to swallow the most tangible promise his pencil can sketch. Etching memories of a dying dialect and flavor while doing emotional labor for his friend.

Still: 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' (2019)
Still: 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' (2019)

Modern methods of colonization through corporate gluttony and avarice continue the practice that has long been the glue holding up institutional racism in America. We've seen it reenacted in the hit TV interpretation of the Watchmen, in films like Rosewood. We see it in the struggle of the homeless mothers in Oakland, taking ownership of empty houses.

Appropriation and gentrification are about the same tactic. They weave and overlap in ways that are consumable by mainstream Eurocentric society, and justified through misrepresentation of those who are being robbed of land, culture and health.

We've always been able to adjust, moving from frame to frame. Carrying our tools, recording our footsteps in song.

The auntie, in wise repose asks Jimmie, "Do you wanna keep fighting for this?".

Yet we find ourselves, in this country, fighting eternally for a place to call our own.

Each of us, disconnected, wander amongst the rooms, the dust settling on our jackets. Or we stand on the street belittling the Other, if just to find purchase in the crowd.

Our sojourn in America marked by migration, pain, disappointment in the aftermath of centuries of metaphysical and tonal erasure by settler politics.

In my view this film depicts the stages of growth, stagnation and damnation of black people in America, based on our journey through the hell that is democracy.

Still: 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' (2019)

The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019) was directed by Joe Talbot


Milton Goosby is a 43 year old ex convict, hate crime survivor, former sex worker and mentally ill fugitive. He wrote his first manuscript in prison, by hand. Efforts praised but ultimately rejected, he knew then that writing was his voice. He's written extensively about life as a trauma survivor, anti-blackness, Otherness. His blog, Confessions of an Urban Shaman, has garnered thousands of views.


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