I watched The Last Black Man in San Francisco(2019) for the first time on my way back to New York from a week and a half trip home to Georgia. After spending some time working on graduate school applications, I needed something else to do for the latter half of the two hour journey. I turned my attention to the free movie page of Southwest’s on-plane web browser (the one you get to use when you don’t wanna pay for $8 wifi, but they take pity on you by providing some free movies and TV). I took a few moments to scroll through the list of available movies and came across The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I had heard of the movie a few months prior, but other than the awareness that it was coming out, I didn’t know much about it. But I’m here for anything that has black folks in it. By the time I finished the first half of the movie, it had become one of my favorites, and by the time I finished the second half of the film (after renting it on Google Play when I got to my destination to finish it), it had become my favorite.
The Last Black Man follows Jimmie Fails and his best friend Montgomery Allen on a trip through conversations around gentrification, black ownership, self-determination, masculinity, and wholeness. It’s a beautiful film that doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie – it feels like you’re being taken along on their journey. There’s a realness and a rawness to the film that I haven’t experienced in a movie before. The colors, the people, the story, and the capacity for the actors in this film to play their roles is so absolutely wonderful that I spent the last 20 minutes of the film crying. I’ve never seen a more beautifully shot movie. And the sounds in the movie are just as beautiful.
Composed by Emile Mosseri, the soundtrack to the Last Black Man is just as simply nuanced as the film itself. The film does a lot without overdoing it, and the soundtrack follows suit. It’s grand, but there are moments of simpleness in it that make it still feel real, and not like a grandiose film soundtrack that only works if you’re listening to it in a theater. The characters and spaces in the movie really come out in the score. Songs like “King Jimmie” and “Montgomery’s Theme,” sound just like their respective namesakes. “King Jimmie” is a simple, yet triumphant song; there’s a quiet regality in it that fits Jimmie Fails as a character. “Montgomery’s Theme” is warm, like Mont is in the film. There isn’t the regalness of “King Jimmie,” but there’s something in the track that feels like home; it feels familiar and like something that you can always come back to, matching the caring and kind nature of Montgomery in the film.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” takes on that regal quality of “King Jimmie,” but offers a sort of hymnal quality to it that comes out in a lot of other songs from the soundtrack, including “A House, Haunted.” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” shows up two more times on the soundtrack, once as a prelude and once as a “wounded warrior” version, each version adding something to the original theme that makes it a song of its own. The “wounded warrior” version has a sort of memorialized triumph aspect to it that plays on the regality that appears elsewhere on the project, but offers a sadder air to it that is reminiscent of wounded warriors coming back from battle.
The only song on the project that includes actual lyrics, unless you include Jimmie’s story about how he met Montgomery in the last song of the project, is “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” sung by Michael Marshall of the Timex Social Club. A cover of the 1967 song by Scott McKenzie, popularized during the hippie/anti-war movement in the late 60s, the film’s version sounds like a hymn; Marshall’s voice booms over the instrumental composing of horns and gentle “ooh’s” of a background chorus. But while offering a new take, the film’s version keeps some of the folkness of the original, offering a more guitar-led instrumental towards the backend of the song. And it’s this part of the song that, when paired with the film, creates one of the many messages that Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails offer in the film: this story can and does happen everywhere.
If you’re going to San FranciscoScott McKenzie, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)“
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there
Gentrification is a growing concern in cities all over the country. Black and brown communities – and the cultures that they carry with them – are being pushed out, in order to make room for growing industries, including the Silicon Valley in California. Offered as a solution to the blight of deindustrialized areas, this movement of new business (and the whiter and richer communities that they attract) push out the folks who can no longer afford to stay there. This is what happened to Jimmie Fails and his family, nd is happening countless times a day. Instead of allowing revitalization of an area to include the folks that already live there, revitalization seems to necessitate a complete upheaval of what was and an ignoring of the humanity of the folks who are getting kicked out, which isn’t hard to do when black and brown folks are already faced with a dehumanization from various state actors everyday. So what the movie and soundtrack attempt to do is to show us what happens when you prioritize a certain group of people and deny another of its humanity, in hopes that offering some accessibility of narrative (in a way that makes it hard to turn away) will offer some room for conversations to happen that can undo the damage that has been done. There’s a sense of optimism in the film, that if acted upon in masss, could truly change the world for the better.
Featured Photo Credit: https://genius.com/album_cover_arts/355531
The Last Black Man in San Francisco Soundtrack rating:
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