By Alex Sosler
Jimmie Fails IV overhears two upwardly mobile, white girls contemplating a move to East LA out of this “dead city.” “Excuse me,” he interrupts, “You can’t hate San Francisco.” He asks, “Do you love it? … You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
The recent film The Last Black Man in San Francisco chronicles the life of two young, poor black men seeking home in a technologically transient (and uber-rich) neighborhood of San Francisco. Jimmie and Montgomery (Mont), the two lead characters, are in search for home in a quickly changing landscape. More specifically, Jimmie cares for a house that he lived in as a child before his drug-addicted father was evicted. As the story goes, his grandfather built the home in 1946, so Jimmie maintains it—painting, weeding, planting—even though an older, white couple occupies the home now who have not asked for his assistance and grow a little perturbed by this strange, young, black man they often discover at their home. Nevertheless, his dream is to move back into his family’s home as the rightful heir. And through an unexpected turn of events, Jimmie and Mont move in and attempt to establish their own place in the neighborhood.
It’s a tale of time and place: the time it takes to love a people and a place, the disruption of growth, and the nature of deception along the way. The film features a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack and showcases the lesser-known San Francisco. The more iconic San Francisco is barely seen; the cinematography is intentional to reveal the city that tourists avoid.
The movie opens with a street preacher lamenting the ills of gentrification and the neglect of poorer neighborhoods. The monologue of craze, which Jimmie can only attribute to what prison will do to a man, ends with the refrain, “Fight for your home!” But questions arise throughout the movie: “Where is home? What makes a home?”
As the movie progresses, dissonance develops. Did Jimmie Fails II really build this Victorian-style San Francisco home, complete with organ and witch hat? Was an 1850’s-style home really constructed by a black man in 1946?
In music, dissonance is a term that applies to a lack of harmony, or an unexpected turn in a musical piece. For example, Duke scholar Jeremy Begbie highlights the work of Bach as a prime illustration. In Bach, one finds the music flowing the way one would expect with tones being in sync and structured technically, but then all of a sudden the tune will take a turn. It’s not wrong, but it is unexpected. The timing seems off. That’s what makes playing Bach so complicated: just when you expect you’ve mastered the rhythm or progression, an unexpected turn comes. A dissonance. Bebgie comments, “And that’s one of the secrets of his greatness. His music is rarely predictable but at the same time it’s wonderfully coherent; full of surprise and yet full of consistency.” Startling, yet frustratingly familiar.
The nature of self-deception is dissonant. It might feel unnatural at first. It might seem like there’s no way “this” follows “that.” However, with enough time and justification, the dissonance ends up feeling natural, making sense. Dissonance can sound odd at first until you’re so familiar with it that it becomes the new normal.
The dissonance in the story is understandable for Jimmie. He’s in the midst of the story he wants to believe. It matters to him. It’s easy to be deceived when you want your version of the truth so badly—when so much depends on it. But even Montgomery, a quirky artist who often stands at a distance to observe (as any good artist is prone to do), gets caught in the deception. His love for his friend wrenches him into the story.
The story seems too unbelievable to be true. How could his grandfather have built a Victorian house by himself? But when we want something to be true, when it resonates with other natural longings, sometimes it’s easier to believe. Until it isn’t.
It’s not until a neighborhood gang member dies that the story begins to unravel. It starts with an act of hospitality: Mont invites Kofi, one of the gang members with whom they interact, into Jimmie’s home. As they’re sharing a joint, it turns out Jimmie and Kofi had shared a group home during Jimmie’s tumultuous childhood—a fact that Mont, despite being best friends with Jimmie, is surprised to learn. Kofi seems kind and friendly. They share laughs and memories.
Until the next day. They’re walking from Mont’s grandfather’s slum to Jimmie’s Victorian paradise. As they’re on their way, they encounter Kofi with his gang. Around his people, Kofi takes on a different persona. Instead of friendship, Kofi goes after Jimmie—that he’s not better than them, that his father is a deadbeat, just like Jimmie, etc. Jimmie keeps walking, but this dissonance startles him. Another shouts out, “Go home Jimmie!” If only it were that easy.
They were just talking as friends the day before? Friends to enemies in a day?
The following day, Kofi dies in a gang-related shooting. Friends to enemies to death.
Mont decides to host a play in their home. It’s a tribute to Kofi. He emphasizes that Kofi has transcended the social media lament or what people said about him. He lives in the collective memory. In his words, “Kofi had dimensions.” The play turns to the audience to illustrate the point. Mont, now riffing off the preaching at the beginning of the film, calls out a few members of the crowd. A community member. His gang leader. Jimmie. Upon reflecting on Kofi’s death, Jimmie recalls their last encounter alongside a story of Kofi defending him in the group home against bullies. And finally, he ends, “People aren’t one thing.”
Mont, in full spirit of the preacher now, has found his text for the day. Why does the world put people like Kofi in a box that he felt like he could never push beyond? What if we lived in a world where we could be truly known, to show all forms of ourselves? What difference would that have made for Kofi? What difference could that make for us? “Let us have the courage to see beyond the stories we’re born into!” Mont exclaims. Now he turns the audience’s attention to Jimmie and preaches at him—like some sort of anxious bench. Jimmie is a lot of things: friend, carpenter, true survivor. He would be all those things even without the house. Jimmie, at this point, is getting uncomfortable. He’s a spectator. “It’s time you know!” Mont is emphatic. “I don’t want to know. Stop,” Jimmie demands. Mont insists that he needs to know. And Jimmie’s confronted with the words he’s been living to not believe: “Your grandfather didn’t build this house.” Truth with time. Jimmie can’t escape it.
Mont wants Jimmie to believe that we’re beyond the stories we’re born into. But there’s a lot of sowing in our stories.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke observes:
“It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.”
Loving people who have dimensions is hard. As in WH Auden’s poem, “Loving our crooked neighbor with all our crooked heart” is a difficult endeavor. In part, because of their crookedness; in part, because of ours. It takes time to figure out, discover, and reconfigure the elements, postures, and goals of love. It’s no easy task. Diligent sowing is required. Places aren’t exempt from the same dynamic.
It’s hard to know when to move on. It could be from a relationship, a place, a career, a denomination, a religion. It takes a lot of time to know one’s place and know one’s self. Moreover, we get entangled in the complexity of knowing ourselves and our places. Sometimes, there are long seasons of sowing, and the only thing we reap is disappointment. Our only hope to know is that we have guides along the way that can lead us out of our deception. We are masters of self-justification. The context of knowledge, like love, is relationship and community. By the end of the movie, you might question whether Mont and Jimmie are more than friends. Is there romantic love here? But I think that exposes my own loneliness and lack of deep, enduring male friendships. They’re so rare that they are, in one definition, queer.
The movie ends without resolution—unsatisfyingly. I like these types of movies because so much of life is without resolution. But in Christian art, for whatever reason, we like neat packages. (Think any “Christian movie” in popular culture). There’s a dissonance that arrives from the type of ambiguous culmination as displayed in Last Black Man. Jimmie is adrift at sea, literally being tossed by waves on a rowboat. He has no home. He’s a pilgrim, a fellow traveler, still searching for home but less sure where it is. The distress lingers.
The cliché that time heals all wounds turns out to be false. Sometimes all that time does is reveal fresh wounds. But the question becomes: will we stay when those wounds are revealed? And if we leave, have we put in the necessary time?
It’s difficult to walk away. The story of Jimmie Fails leads us to see lots of brokenness—in our relationships, places, careers, etc. It’s not that we ought to be eternally starry-eyed optimists that can only see the good. Part of love is to reveal, critique, expose, as Mont does for Jimmie. However, before we critique or hate or leave, we need to do an essential thing. We have to love.
Alex Sosler is Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College near Asheville, North Carolina. Prior to life as a professor, he served as a pastoral assistant at a church near Cleveland, Ohio, (his hometown) and as an associate pastor in Austin, Texas. His writing has been featured in Front Porch Republic, Fathom Magazine, and Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Alex is married to Lauren and dad to Mariela, Auden, and Jude. His family attends Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville where he serves as a church planting curate.