Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (A24)

It was a bit of a wrench to discover, after already having seen the film, that Joe Talbot, the screenwriter/director behind The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is a white man. I so wanted to be able to hold it up as a stellar example of the currently evolving Golden Age of black filmmaking. But in a way, that’s an encouraging sign – that the narrative and its execution ring true, and that good stories about the lives and concerns of people of color are good stories, period: stories that will resonate for any audience, and make enough money for studios to want to make more of them.

Well, maybe not for audiences who are motivated to head out to the movies only for blockbuster action flicks. The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s closest approximations of a car chase are an exhilarating trip through the city’s famously hilly, winding streets by two men sharing a single skateboard and a wary conversation in a slowly cruising jalopy so battered that its passenger-side door is missing. There are five characters collectively known as the Greek Chorus (they’re usually all talking at once, though at cross-purposes, never in unison) who seem always just on the verge of a fight, sometimes blatantly trying to provoke one; but physical violence never explodes onscreen. There is one off-camera death that rocks the community, and plenty of psychological violence in the abstracted form of a spiraling housing market that’s driving out working-class people who have made the City by the Bay their home for generations.

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It’s tempting to call this film a love letter to San Francisco, but its ugly parts are on full display as much as its appealing ones, with Adam Newport-Berra’s exquisite cinematography bringing both to vivid life. As protagonist Jimmie Fails tells a young woman he overhears bitching about the city on a bus ride, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” Jimmie has experienced both the best and the worst that the city has to offer, spending early childhood in his grandfather’s gorgeous Victorian house in the once-black Fillmore District and ending up in a group home for part of his adolescence after the family fragmented. He has earned the right to complain. He chooses instead to fight in whatever constructive way he can to save the old family manse when it falls into disrepair and the current owner into mortgage default. One of the life skills he has learned from his con man of a father (Rob Morgan) is how to be a squatter, so that’s what he does – until matters get more complicated.

Although not a docudrama, Jimmie Fails in his first screen role is essentially playing himself, and Last Black Man is based on incidents from the actor’s own life, which he began relating to the director when the two became close friends in their early teens. Talbot’s surrogate in the onscreen version of the tale is Montgomery Allen, called Mont, played by Jonathan Majors, a black actor. Mont is not a budding filmmaker, but a painter and playwright who studies the complicated inhabitants of his own neighborhood with an artist’s eye and an ear for vernacular inspiration.

The chemistry between these two friends comes across as sweet and devoted and genuine (and, contrary to expectations for a story set in contemporary San Francisco, apparently devoid of any sexual interest in one another). The home that Mont shares with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover) is tiny and cluttered but full of humane generosity, and Jimmie is welcome to sleep on the floor in Mont’s room as long as he needs to. But that other house – the one that his family had to give up and is now worth four million dollars – keeps calling on Jimmie to come home.

Aside from the obvious sociological concerns about the human costs of gentrification, Last Black Man raises plenty of meaty philosophical questions. What does “home” really mean, at the core? What good is it to nurture a sense of place in a place that no longer makes it possible for us to feel welcome? How do the stories we tell ourselves keep us going in adversity, and yet sometimes also imprison us in futility? Is artmaking a form of transcendence, mere escape, a basic survival skill? How do we strike a balance between holding on and moving on? What defines a family, a hometown? And what does it require of us to be a true friend?

This is all rich, heady stuff that more than compensates for the film’s often-stately pace and tiny budget. The lack of big-name actors, aside from Glover, is counterbalanced by the often-hilarious employment of real San Francisco street characters, such as a homeless man who sings opera, most impressively, from a park bench. It’s treated as just another day in the big town when a guy sits down next to you stark naked at a bus stop and engages in chitchat. The tourists and those who pander to them all seem far less sane than the nudist. If the beautiful house of Jimmie’s dreams is a living, breathing character in this story, so is the city itself. Once you’ve fully embraced such a place, who would ever want to leave?

Modestly scaled as it is, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is as perfect a gem of an indie movie as I expect to see in 2019. It won several awards at its Sundance premiere and seems likely to scarf up more by year’s end. Find out why for yourself. It’s on the schedule at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck for one more week.

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