The Last Black Man in San Francisco Review
Directorial debuts often provide clues as to what that artist has to offer in their future movies, but it’s rare to find debuts as captivating as The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Joe Talbot’s first feature film establishes a strong visual style for the director from the get-go, as he crafts a San Francisco that feels real and bustling with life.
This semi-autobiographical tale follows Jimmie Fails (playing himself) in his quest to reclaim his childhood home, a Victorian house built by his grandfather. The house is out of his reach in a now-affluent neighbourhood - and it’s not just this district that has changed. Jimmie, accompanied by his friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), attend to the property against the wishes of its new owners and when given the opportunity, they move in. As he pushes against the boundaries of ownership, Jimmie also struggles with a love-and-hate relationship with the rapidly-transforming city.
Jimmie’s attempts to care for his former home and fight back against those who are "killing" it put the topic of gentrification front and centre, yet the film's approach is far from direct. Talbot's San Francisco is full of unique and believable characters, with each and everyone feeling fully-formed. Most notable among the supporting cast is Mont, played with a nervous energy by Majors, who tries to capture the behaviour of those around him in his writing and illustrations. His likeable performance not only supports Fails' lead role, but speaks to the performative masculinity he encounters in the city. The film benefits greatly from this character-first relaxed pacing. Talbot makes use of long pans - bolstered by a beautiful score by Emile Mosseri - to establish the city and its inhabitants before tackling its problems.
The Filmore district of the city that Jimmie wishes to return to may have been a predominately black, middle-class area in his youth, but the film makes sure to paint a more complex picture. The neighbourhood was previously occupied by Japanese-Americans that were eventually taken to internment camps in the 1940s. Talbot explores not just the here-and-now effect of gentrification, but addresses the past and those that rewrite it. Rather than a straightforward morality tale, the film presents a clash of perspectives amid wide societal change without making obvious moral statements. There is a refreshingly nuanced understanding to the matter that the director doesn’t feel the need to over-explain, letting the emotional aftermath of these changes speak for themselves.
Jimmie Fails gives a quietly powerful performance that remains small and subtle throughout, but you can always tell exactly what he’s thinking and feeling from so little. He and Majors give riveting performances that ground the often-meandering narrative for the majority of the runtime. The film suffers from a fairly languid third act that loses some of the bold, dynamic energy that made the rest of the film so watchable, but soon brings it back to stick the landing.
It’s easy for even the most well-meaning of movies to stumble delivering a compelling narrative along with their message, but there’s a delicate balance that rarely wavers here. Jimmie’s relationship to the city and its history, in addition to other discussions of toxic masculinity and class, are all explored with a confidence and flourish that cements Talbot as one of the most exciting directors working today.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is released in the UK on October 25