Film

A Tender Friendship Between Black Men Escapes the Limits of Toxic Masculinity

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is refreshingly profound in its exploration of the physical and emotional closeness of its lead characters.

Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, and Danny Glover in The Last Black Man in San Francisco (all images courtesy A24)

In the recent  film The Last Black Man in San Francisco best friends Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (nicknamed Mont, and played by Jonathan Majors) are physically affectionate and emotionally bonded, free from the shackles of traditional ideas about gender. Straight, Black male characters in a bonafide American “bromance” that isn’t played for predictable laughs is an all too rare occurrence in cinema.

The film follows Jimmie and Mont as they attempt to remain in their beloved San Francisco neighborhoods despite the gentrification that has pushed natives like them out. Directed by Joe Talbot, with a script co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert — and inspired by Jimmie Fails’ real life — the film won two awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it premiered to a standing ovation and much critical acclaim. It opened nationwide on June 7.

The term “toxic masculinity” has become shorthand for archaic definitions of manhood that equate aggression and misogyny with being a “real man.” While it’s often misused as a catchall term that dilutes its complexity, in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, it is refreshing to see a profound lack of toxicity and hypersexualization of its leads, as young Black men whose bodies have been subject to 400 years worth of projections about sexual virility and so-called magical negro strength. Jimmie and Mont don’t fit into the stereotypes of the toms, coons, bucks, and sidekicks that Black men have largely occupied throughout film history. Their bond reflects how many Black men feel and experience relationships in real life, but these complexities rarely make it to the screen. From the moment Jimmie and Mont ride on a skateboard together from Bayview-Hunters Point to the Fillmore it’s clear the film is entering new cinematic territory.

Official Poster for The Last Black Man in San Francisco by Akiko Stehrenberger

Platonic “soulmates” that they are, Jimmie and Mont’s relationship feels like the dramatic version of a rom-com sub genre that hasn’t existed for Black men until now. The “bromance” is a genre that has mostly focused on white men in a buddy comedy setup (I Love You, Man, The Hangover franchise, and too many more to name here). While twenty years ago, there were Hollywood releases like The Best Man (1999), The Wood (1999), and The Brothers (2001) that followed groups of Black men, these movies centered around the characters’s often stereotypical — and always heterosexual — romantic pursuits, not their relationships with each other. Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Oscar-winning indie Moonlight, with its quietly moving love story of two Black queer men set in the working-class Miami neighborhood of Liberty City represented a major departure from this trend and broke new ground in terms of representations of the relationships Black men have with each other. It’s not surprising then that two of the producers of The Last Black Man in San Francisco — Plan B Entertainment’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner— were also behind Moonlight.

Yet in terms of more mainstream Hollywood bromance films, The Last Black Man in San Francisco signals a major departure. The film’s writers feel no need to reassure us that Jimmie and Mont aren’t in a sexual relationship or even one with repressed homoerotic potential, and that feels significant. Not once do these friends take a defensive “no homo” stance even as the group of young Black men who hold court in front of Mont’s house and act as the film’s Greek Chorus tease them in typical form: “Niggas taking showers together now?” There’s no sense that physical closeness between straight men is threatening and must be neutralized. Instead there’s a palpable ease. In the scenes where Jimmie, Mont, and Mont’s grandfather (delightfully played by Danny Glover) sit in their living room watching old movies together, the frame is plush with not only a close-knit feeling, but their physical proximity. Jimmie sits on the floor leaning back against the couch. Grandpa is in the center, and Mont, on his right, leans into him and touches his knee as they quietly laugh. Their bodies, although separate, feel like one unit. To see Black male characters nurture each other and appear so carefree feels special and unprecedented.

It’s also significant that Jimmie’s character arc isn’t centered around getting girls or getting money — common Black masculine stereotypes — instead what drives him is preserving a mythic connection to both his city and his family. A handsome, charming, and athletic skateboarder, in another movie he’d be the guy who gets all the girls. Yet he has no romantic story line at all. The same is true for Mont, an offbeat playwright, who’s self-assured and courageous in a way that doesn’t cling to gender norms. At least one reviewer went so far as to say “Jimmie and Mont are sexless — without any romance or overt desire, without any spark of intimate connection or interest.” What that writer fails to see is that the choice to focus on their friendship is not a misstep, but rather a bold and intentional choice.

Jonathan Majors (Mont) and Jimmie Fails (Jimmie), photo by Peter Prato

The Last Black Man in San Francisco also enters a space once exclusively occupied by a group of Black bromances that shout their toxic masculinity from the rooftops. In 2014’s Ride Along, for example, Kevin Hart’s character Ben Barber challenges a reluctant Detective James Payton (played by Ice Cube), “I cannot wait to show you that I am twice the man that you think I am,” he says.  Their dynamic is competitive and brutish — qualities wholly absent from Jimmie and Mont’s friendship.

The connection that Jimmie and Mont share is not overly demonstrative, and the fact that their onscreen friendship is inspired by the real-life friendship of Fails and Talbot makes their bond feel true. Jimmie visits Montgomery at his job as a fishmonger. Mont helps Jimmie fix up the house from his childhood. They become roommates. They argue and spend time apart. They apologize to each other and come back together. They let out high-pitched “girl-like” screams in their house. They sauna together. Indeed it’s the mundane aspects of their friendship that make it feel like something that holds at least as much weight as a love affair.

In the final frame of the movie Mont looks out over the dock in front of his house. Talbot saturates the frame in a rich blue tone. The scene is stunningly beautiful, but it also speaks of grief; ultimately the punishing forces of gentrification not only rob Jimmie of his home but also jeopardizes his relationship with his best friend. The brilliance of what The Last Black Man in San Francisco does is in its portrayal of Black men with innocence and depth. The gift of the film is its insistence on the humanity of its lead characters. And in so doing it gives all of us permission to follow a natural human instinct: leaning into and on our loved ones.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now screening at various theaters in New York City and nationwide.

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