What The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a movie ostensibly about gentrification, leaves out about gentrification

A beautiful movie, with a puzzlingly apolitical point of view

Image from The Last Black Man in San Francisco poster.
(Image credit: Illustrated | A24, Riderolga/iStock, Vagengeym_Elena_iStock)

Is The Last Black Man in San Francisco a movie about gentrification? The answer seems easy — it obviously is. As the title proclaims, and as every preview and review of this much-hyped film manages to mention, the titular black man's Quixotian efforts to reclaim his family's Fillmore home takes place against the backdrop of San Francisco's plummeting black population. "We built these ships, we dredged these canals, in a San Francisco they never knew existed," the protagonist proclaims at the beginning of a trailer that ends with the words that give the movie its title. "I'm the last one left."

But what is gentrification? The word's obviousness is a trap. It's so familiar and so generally lamented that it can seem like weather or the economy, something that's just there, that just happens. In the Bay Area, we tsk and shake our heads, noting statistics and trends and bemoaning the transformation of cities like San Francisco. But then we tend to throw up our hands; what, after all, is to be done? Even gentrifiers themselves often join the consensus that gentrification is bad. (One of the best jokes in the movie is that our protagonist's white adversaries — the white gentrifiers in his house and the white realtor who sells it — are given to spontaneously declaring how great it is that he's still there, how glad they are to see a black man in the city still making it work.) Gentrification is a tragedy, everyone agrees, but no one seems to be at fault.

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Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady is a founding editor at Popula. He was an editor at The New Inquiry and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakland, California.