I was resistant at first to the The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I couldn’t make sense of the movie’s tone. It seemed funny and serious, elegiac and silly; a study in contradictions. It is all those things and more. Once I gave myself over to it, when I fell into sync with its wavelength, it blossomed before me into the most moving, unforgettable experience I’ve had at the movies so far this year. Director Joe Talbot and his childhood friend, creative collaborator, and star Jimmie Fails have made a singular work of art here.
Fails plays a character named Jimmie Fails. The story is loosely based on the actor’s own life. The movie centers around Jimmie’s efforts to – and obsession with – regaining ownership of the house his grandfather built in the Fillmore District neighborhood of San Francisco. Jimmie’s family lost the house when he was only a child due to rapid gentrification of the neighborhood. When young, wealthy (almost always) white professionals decide an area is the hip new place to be and developers’ concomitant projects drive real estate values sky-high, the result is that the black and brown populations living there get pushed out through foreclosure when they can no longer afford the property taxes.
The 2018 film Blindspotting also tackled the issue of gentrification, among other things. In fact, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Blindspotting have several things in common. Both movies take place in the Bay Area; Blindspotting is set in Oakland. Both involve a mixed-race creative collaboration between men who have been friends since childhood. But where Blindspotting is a more straightforward, conventional narrative, Talbot’s picture confronts its thematic issues of class and race with a lyrical sensibility. Last Black Man is Blindspotting by way of Terrence Malick.
Joe Talbot and his cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, capture both the city of San Francisco and the characters populating it with exquisite beauty. Talbot employs super-slow motion throughout the movie to capture the expressions and movement of Jimmie’s neighbors. His compositions have a painterly quality. His film is a celebration of motion – Jimmie rides a skateboard almost everywhere he goes.
Two shots in particular stand out as ready-made to be framed and put on display in an art gallery; if not for the crushing loss of delicate motion that taking a still shot of each would require.
The first is a slow zoom out on the impossibly hilly streets of San Francisco. Jimmie is moving toward us on his skateboard on the left side of the frame as a trolley car moves away from us on the right. The magnificent Golden Gate Bridge is in the far background. The second shot (the last of the film) is a man in a row boat with the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in low-hanging clouds behind him.
It’s obvious how much the filmmakers love this city, even as they challenge the inequity that its poorest citizens suffer. Like every other aspect of Last Black Man, the social critique contained within it is subtle but powerfully effective. It can also be viciously biting. The simple image of Jimmie hitching a ride on the back of a food truck – because he can’t afford a car – is packed with meaning. The truck he has hopped onto is for a company called Bowl’d Acai. The food truck’s menu items, like poke bowls – a very trendy dish at the moment, and the most recent example of cultural appropriation by white entrepreneurs – are advertised above Jimmie’s head.
This is also a movie with a distinct sense of humor. The key scene to the whole film involves Jimmie explaining the legacy of the house his grandfather built to a segue-tour comprised of all white people. The tour guide (played by San Francisco mainstay and Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra) is describing the neighborhood’s past to his tour group when Jimmie interjects his own history lesson. The befuddled guide shrugs his shoulders at Jimmie’s speech before leading the gaggle of segue riders on to the next attraction on the tour.
Jimmie’s best friend, an emotionally sensitive artist and playwright named Montgomery, makes a revelation late in the film that challenges what Jimmie – and by extension, the audience – knows about the house. Without spoiling too much, this surprise information acts as a commentary on the power that the stories we tell ourselves about our own history have on our sense of self. I have to imagine that power is even stronger for people of color, who often have had their history stolen from them.
Talbot and his cowriter, Rob Richert, also confront the issue of toxic masculinity in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Their filmmaking influences are readily apparent with the use of a set of characters who act as a Greek chorus to the action, much like the old men hanging out on the corner in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
This hyper-masculine group of men in Last Black Man are more centrally connected to the story, however, as they taunt Jimmie and Mont for their close friendship and for what they see as the duo’s strange behavior. Mont shows Jimmie – and us – compassion and intelligence beyond his years when he refuses to simply write the men off because of their worst character traits. As Mont draws beautiful, loving portraits of each of his tormentors faces, he explains to Jimmie how and why he does so. “People are more than one thing,” he says. They’ve all grown up in the neighborhood together, after all, and their relationships are more complicated than a few isolated interactions would suggest.
And that’s the lesson of the movie, really. It’s an exploration of how you can love a city that mistreats you. How just because you love a place doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge those in power to make things better. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an incredible debut feature from Joe Talbot. It is sad and funny and truth-telling and heartbreaking and breathtaking.
But above all, it is hopeful.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a gorgeous, wonderfully acted rumination on how a city kicks its most vulnerable populations. Its lyricism is a thing of wonder. It contains the most beautiful images I’ve seen on screen so far this year.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I didn’t mention the acting in the main review, so it would be a huge oversight if I didn’t get to it here. Jimmie Fails (in his feature debut) and Jonathan Majors as Mont are both fantastic. Their performances are in perfect sync with the movie’s sensibility, which makes sense; the story is loosely based on events in Jimmie’s own life, after all. Both men have such unique, distinctive faces (Majors, in particular) that it is a continuous joy to look at them on screen.
- The great Danny Glover also appears in a few scenes as Montgomery’s grandfather. I respect him so much as an actor and social justice advocate.
- Emile Mosseri’s score is intoxicating. His horns and woodwinds produce an ethereal effect that dovetail beautifully with the images.
- A nudist hanging out at a bus stop and a group of obnoxious tourists on one of those Pedal Pub Crawl beer bus things are just two of the ways the movie savagely and slyly takes down gentrification and white privilege.
- Mike Epps is very funny playing a character named Bobby.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- There wasn’t much of a reaction at the press screening I attended. I stifled an urge to applaud after it was over.