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Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

July 8, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

As cities and communities become increasingly gentrified, the people who built them up and made these spaces what they were end up getting pushed out in favour of populations that might not even recognize the history of where they have come to inhabit.

It’s a frustrating phenomenon that is unfortunately happening in cities all over the world, and this is the theme that runs through director Joe Talbot’s evocative, melancholic, and often gorgeous debut feature The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

The film stars actor Jimmie Fails, also making his feature debut, as a loose version of himself, and the story is partly inspired by his own life. The film’s version of Jimmie lives with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright who shares a small place with his blind father (Danny Glover) in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But Jimmie’s heart remains with the old Victorian house that he grew up in, a beautiful structure located in the historic Fillmore District complete with red and gold trim and a distinctive turret on the roof. As Jimmie keeps telling everyone who will listen, his grandfather built this house by hand after returning from World War II back in 1946. As the story goes, Jimmie’s grandpa was “the first black man in San Francisco,” but his family couldn’t afford to keep the house and lost it in the 1990s. Others claim the house was built about a century earlier in the mid-1800s, but Jimmie refuses to listen to these attempts to reshape his perception of his family’s history.

Jimmie still goes to the house every few weeks to fix up the paint on the outside trim and tend to the garden, much to the annoyance of the old white couple who have now lived there for years. But when this couple loses the house to the bank following a death in the family, Jimmie wastes no time in moving a bunch of his family’s old stuff back in. With little hope of him actually being able to afford the several million dollar price tag that will be put on the home, the idea is that if he can stay there long enough and get the bills switched to his name, the squatters rights laws that exist in California will allow him to eventually claim it as his own.

We find out a bit of the fascinating history behind the Fillmore District in the film. The area used to be home to a large population of Japanese immigrants, who previously made up the biggest visible minority community in the area, before they were all rounded up under Roosevelt’s administration and put in interment camps as cruel retribution for Pearl Harbour during World War II. It was after the war that African-American soldiers returning from battle bought homes in the area, and established the thriving black community that the Fillmore District came to be known for, gaining it the nickname “the Harlem of the West.” We are all just visitors to these places, the film tries to be saying, and who really owns a space if we weren’t the first ones to lay claim to it?

The film unfolds with a somewhat surreal and at times fantastical tone that feels like a cross between a fable, a dream, and pure cinema. People in Hazmat suits ominously clean up near the water. A street preacher (Willie Hen) gives sermons about the area being poisoned by toxic water, which the poorer African-American communities have been forced to drink for decades, and is only being cleaned up now that the area is being gentrified and richer white people are moving in.

This is a wholly impressive feature debut for Joe Talbot, who previously collaborated with Jimmie Fails on a short that also played at Sundance where this film premiered. We can feel his cinematic influences seeping through the frames of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, yet it still feels entirely unique and original, with the young filmmaker well on his way to establishing his own clear authorial voice. Because Talbot and Fails are childhood friends who grew up together in the Bay Area, they have a lot of shared history that is imbued into the film. Talbot is white, so he doesn’t have the exact same lived experience as his characters, which will lead some to raise questions about who gets to tell what stories. But he works in tandem with Fails, taking his actor’s lead to offer something that feels authentic.

The film is exceptionally well shot by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, featuring some of the most beautifully captured images that we are sure to see on screen this year. There are several montages of Jimmie riding his skateboard down the street, with Mont often jumping on the back, scenes that unfold in poetic long shots, including one mesmerizing and amazingly composed scene in which he skates down a hill, his skateboard weaving back and forth as a trolley makes its way up beside him, with the Golden Gate Bridge engulfed by fog in the background. Emile Mosseri’s hypnotic musical score, which manages to feel both sweeping and minimalistic, heightens the drama, with shades of Phillip Glass.

Fails and Majors both deliver standout performances, with a wonderfully nuanced chemistry between them that makes this one of the finest portraits of male friendship ever put on screen. Neither one is given a love interest, another impressively unique feature of the film, but there are hints of homosexual attraction between them. This is never overstated, nor does it need to be. So much of this film is about subtleties beneath the surface, and the symbolic, understated nature of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a big part of what makes it feel so special.

One of the film’s most haunting and moving moments comes when a busker (Mike Marshall) sings an incredible new rendition of the old song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” “If you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna meet some gentle people there,” the lyrics to the song go, and Marshall’s powerful voice lingers over the phrase “gentle people,” repeating it a few times. There is a gentle quality to the film, to be sure, and this is part of what makes it so moving to watch. It almost plays like a eulogy, a love letter to a changing city written by someone saying goodbye.

Filled with aesthetic pleasures and a gently quirky sense of humour, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a beautiful, wistful film about home and who gets to claim ownership over a place, capturing the feeling of having to move on and confront the history of where you came from. The film seems to be saying that spaces are never really ours to keep and we just sort of inhabit them for a while before being forced to move on to the next place. If this is the case, it’s a blissful, bittersweet experience to inhabit the world of this film for a couple of hours.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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