The Last Black Man in San Francisco Review
The gentrification of traditional working class areas continues to tear out the roots and history of generations who once called it their home. From Hackney (where this reviewer was raised) to Houston and beyond, the transformation has been fast and brutal, forcing locals to up sticks and start again wherever the property market will allow them. Joe Talbot (director/co-writer) and Jimmie Fails’ (star and co-writer) are two childhood friends who have lived in San Francisco all their lives and their debut film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is a sincere love letter to a city they struggle to recognise today.
There are many things to love about this film, but perhaps what should be admired most is the assuredness of the direction. Without knowing this was Talbot’s first time behind the camera you'd be hard pressed to spot it, such is the level of confidence he displays in telling the story. It perhaps helps that it is based on Fails’ real childhood experience of living in a grand family home and his deep attachment to it. But this is a film with much more on its mind than just losing touch with the past, with thoughts on race, identity, friendship, masculinity and family all woven into the narrative.
Talbot and Fails’ innate connection to San Francisco can be felt in every frame, their love and concern for the city filling the screen at every opportunity. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is laced with intense melancholy at times, the combination of its themes, gorgeous score and lush photography imbuing it with rich poignancy. It’s the type of film that will have you spellbound within the first five minutes – the opening sequence instantly revealing how beautifully cinematic the next two hours will be.
Placing a singular label on it would be pointless because there are so many facets that reflect the good, bad and ugly of the city, some of which are captured in the drawn sketches of Jimmie's (Jimmie Fails) close friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). Those first five minutes see them riding through the streets on a skateboard, showing us the strange and familiar along the way. It’s an introduction to a slightly heightened version of San Francisco that is seen throughout the film, Talbot using a visual vocabulary that offers literal and metaphorical clues to their feelings about the current direction of the city and the people living there today.
Jimmie and Mont both sleep in a pokey little bedroom in the home of Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover). For much of Jimmie’s life he was raised by his father, James Sr. (Joe Morgan), in squats and shelters before finally ending up in a group home. He is obsessed by a beautiful Victorian house in a now white middle-class neighbourhood, where he once lived for 12 years with his father before being evicted. Jimmie was told it was built by his grandfather in the 40s, contradicting official records that state it is over 100 years old. His grandfather was apparently given the nickname of ‘the first black man in San Francisco' and as the last of his family still in the heart of the city, Jimmie sees it as his duty to reclaim it, someway, somehow.
Our need for stability and the building blocks we establish at home for our lives remain at the forefront of Jimmie’s story. The house represents more than just a roof over his head. Every ornately carved panel of wood and furnishing detail connects him to his family’s history and a sense he still belongs not only in the San Francisco, but in today’s America as a young Black man. For years he’s felt like a nomad in his own city but despite his troubled upbringing he understands that your place of birth never leaves you. Even if you leave it. As he goes on to say later to a couple of young newcomers complaining about life in the city: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
The more surreal elements of Talbot and Fails’ film express themselves in some of the bolder characters located around the city. These work as small vignettes that feed back into the wider narrative, adding touches of humour and reflection. Whether it’s the naked old man seen sitting next to Jimmie at the bus stop, or the preacher railing against the toxic waste contaminating the area, the quirks and oddities are celebrated as much as anything else. Another example are the group of young thugs who hang outside Mont’s home every day. They are more caricatures than real people (which is the point being made), and their presence is used to raise questions about Black identity and masculinity.
While not exactly a slow burn, the film does find its own pace through use of Emile Mosseri heart-breaking score. It’s a startlingly mature set of compositions for someone who has so few credits to his name, but it takes no time in establishing itself as one of the best scores you’ll hear this year. The soulful mood is textured further by the likes of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Michael Marshall’s killer version of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. Far more experienced is cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra and his picturesque framing of San Francisco elevates the film even further. It’s the type of photography that will have you hitting pause every few minutes to fully appreciate its beauty.
At the centre of it all are Fails and Majors navigating their character’s friendship and sense of self. Majors is the more experienced of the two (White Boy Rick, Out of Blue) and his dextrous performance underlines that fact. Although, Fails has a relaxed, natural screen presence that feels just as familiar. Which in a film heavily influenced by Spike Lee feels right given the debt it owes to Do the Right Thing and the director’s stylised approach. And while this is specifically about San Francisco, rather than New York or anywhere else, it offers an earnest reminder of why your home and your connection to it are always worth fighting for.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is available on VOD and digital platforms in the US from August 13.