Arts·Point of View

What Toronto can learn from The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Sundance hit asks a crucial question: what happens when people can't afford to live in their own cities?

The Sundance hit asks a crucial question: what happens when people can't afford to live in their own cities?

Jonathan Majors (left) and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (Courtesy of A24)

Since its premiere at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, there has been a lot of praise heaped on The Last Black Man in San Francisco. That praise is well deserved. I saw the film last Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. It's a movie about home and family, friendship and change, masculinity and memory. It's also a love letter to the city of San Francisco. 

Jimmie Fails (played with a quiet wonder by the actor Jimmie Fails in this fictionalized version of his own story) is a young man living in the city who yearns for his long-lost love: an old Victorian home that was built by his grandfather.

Jimmie's father lost the house when Jimmie was a child, and now he is obsessed with this physical emblem of the city's past. Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors in an achingly beautiful performance) embark on a mission to return to his childhood home and renovate it.

Jimmie Fails stars in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (Courtesy of A24)

Their reclamation project is one that nods to more than Jimmie's personal history: it becomes an act of resistance against the rapid forces of gentrification that have transformed the landscape of San Francisco.

In a talk back following Friday's screening, director Joe Talbot described San Francisco as a city obsessed with the past. During the discussion, he and Fails discussed its history — the migration of African Americans from the south into San Francisco following emancipation, the round-up of Japanese residents into internment camps during the Second World War. And then there's the rich history of music, art and architecture that shaped the energy and culture of the city.

In 1967, thousands of artists, activists, musicians and poets arrived in San Francisco, birthing what would come to be known as the Summer of Love. The city has been the site of anti-war protests, the inspiration for countless songs and also the launchpad for the natural and organic food movement. Throughout the film, enthusiastic tour guides on buses and scooters recount pieces of these stories, inviting us to imagine a history that has been priced out of existence.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco director Joe Talbot (left) and actor Jonathan Majors. (Courtesy of A24)

Onstage at TIFF, Talbot noted that he didn't want his first feature to be a protest film against gentrification. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is not a didactic lecture but rather a bittersweet ode to a city. However, it doesn't shy away from critical issues. The opening scene of the film finds a young girl staring curiously at a man in a hazmat suit who is cleaning the debris in the port near the water.

"Environmental racism" is not a phrase that's used in the film, but the evidence is laid out for the audience to consider. One character, a self-appointed preacher, climbs up on a crate every morning in an attempt to mobilize his neighbours. He laments of toxic water and three-eyed fish. As he poignantly declares, the cleanup crew only arrived when new developers arrived — with their plans to displace the mostly Black residents.

In the days since I attended the screening, I've been thinking a lot about the city of San Francisco and the warning it holds for my rapidly changing city.

A study last year found that Toronto has more cranes in use for home construction than any other major city in North America. Many of these cranes are building condos, and this boom in the residential market comes hand in hand with new coffee shops and cocktail bars, expensive boutiques and artisanal cheese — and sometimes, the displacement of the most vulnerable populations.

Toronto is a very different animal from San Francisco. We're not a city that reveres history. Few people can recount the history of how Chinatown used to be where City Hall now stands — nor the history of the Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood's Caribbean community. We also don't have the rich legacy of Victorian and Edwardian architecture that has become a signature of San Francisco's landscape. Our landmarks are tourist attractions, sporting facilities and now, more increasingly, tall glass towers.

However, just like San Francisco, Toronto is a gathering space for numerous populations. It's been a destination for new immigrants, refugees, Vietnam War draft dodgers and escaped slaves. It's also been the home of many of the country's greatest musicians, visual artists, writers and filmmakers. As a city in flux, that legacy may not be true for much longer. 

Tichina Arnold in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (Courtesy of A24)

In an interview with Deadline last month, Talbot posed the question: "What is the city, if the people that make it great can't be there anymore?" It's a poignant question for Toronto to consider.

Numerous articles have been written about disappearing music venues, DIY spaces and movie theatres — but alongside the destruction of those commercial enterprises has come the exodus of musicians and artists who can no longer afford to live in the city.

For Talbot and Fails, there is no going back to the San Francisco of their youth, and this film is their love letter to a city that has changed past the point of no return. As Talbot said in the same Deadline interview, he has a mission: to "document the city as it is, because it might not be that way for much longer." 

Some Toronto artists have followed a similar call. Charles Officer's award-winning documentary Unarmed Verses captured the community of Villaways before it was torn down. Its residents were relocated as a result of a "revitalization" project. Jessica Thalmann's digital collage to dwell is to leave traces recalls the architectural and cultural history of the now demolished Mirvish Village. (It's currently installed, fittingly, at the old Honest Ed's site.) Jon Blak's photography exhibit Home served as a love letter to the Caribbean businesses on the Eglinton West strip, many of which closed their doors after years of transit construction. Joyce Wong's feature length debut Wexford Plaza was set in the rapidly disappearing strip malls of Scarborough.

In this scene from Unarmed Verses, kids from the Villaways community participate in the Art Starts music program. (Courtesy of NFB)

In one scene from The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Jimmie's Aunt Wanda (played by the inimitable Tichina Arnold) turns to her nephew. He's at a crossroads in his life as he considers his relationship to the great house that is no longer his. She says to him: "If you leave, it's not your loss. It's San Francisco's."

For a city that shows no signs of slowing its rapid development, that line may be the greatest warning — and the greatest lesson — Toronto can take from the film.



Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.