Joe Talbot’s directorial debut is a gorgeous, heartfelt experience with dynamite performances.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a delightful chimera. It blends specificity with universality. Peculiarity with familiarity. It makes the mundane surreal, while treating oddity like common experience. On the level of craftsmanship, it has the personality and flavor of a niche indie flick polished to the highest shine of an art house film. All across the board, I found it be one hell of an impressive film.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Jimmie Fails (the actual Jimmie Fails, playing a dramatized version of his own experiences) is obsessed with a quietly dignified house in the heavily gentrified neighborhood of San Francisco where he grew up. Along with his artistic friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), he secretly sneaks onto the property to perform maintenance and upkeep, to the constant exasperation of the actual residents. When the older, white couple who own it lose the property, Jimmie and Mont move in on the sly.
Tones of Home.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco embeds itself into a version of San Francisco that is at once recognizable but also deeply idiosyncratic. The cinematography lingers over telling details of the city, some gorgeous and some tawdry, all drizzled in honey-colored rays of sunlight that feel like a picture-book memory come to life. San Francisco, with its charms and quirks, its celebrated history and private shames, is as much a central character of the film as Jimmie.
The house Jimmie obsesses over stands as a clever metaphor, while remaining a deeply personal experience. Through Jimmie’s labors and Mont’s artistic recreations of the house in his sketchbook, you feel the private identity it bears for our leads. You also get a deft social examination of hot button topics like gentrification, racial segregation, and the legacy of who is and isn’t welcomed into the American dream.
Everything in The Last Black Man in San Francisco seems intended to operate on conflicting yet complimentary levels. The house is an icon of white gentrification displacing black residents…but we learn that Jimmie’s family only gained the house when the former Asian owners were forced out during the WW2 era internment program. San Francisco is presented as both impossible to love for its weirdness and fraught social structures, and yet irresistible to those who love it anyway.
The characters are all multifaceted as well. They’re odd, almost in a Wes Anderson kind of way, but still very real. We see Mont rehearsing street talk in front of a dressing room mirror: is it because he’s a shy black man learning the ins and outs of “performative” black identity, or is it because he’s a would-be playwright, rehearsing a character for one of his acts? Jimmie’s fixation hints at both personal quirks, psychological compulsions from a troubled home life, and social conditioning of what cultural space a poor, young black man is allowed to inhabit.
The beautifully restrained writing and acting allows the ambiguity to exist throughout. Nothing is ever “just” what it appears…but the appearance isn’t a front. It’s real, too.
Slice of Life.
I loved The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It deftly pulls off cultural critique and satire, like Be Kind Rewind or Mark Twain’s less overtly absurdist stories. It also has the ache and burn of biography, like James Baldwin’s writing. The two modes coexist, making the film a rewarding experience.
You can find in it stinging rebukes, doting elegies; silliness and somberness. There’s so much to love in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It’s one of those films that opens to new meanings as you re-watch it again and again.