So many people in the world have felt it. Things aren’t the same as in the past. We can’t afford to live in our dream locations anymore, if we were ever even able to in the first place. We can’t go home again. We’ve lost touch with what makes us feel good, feel whole, feel alive. In a city such as San Francisco, the quaint bohemia has given way to unaffordable housing, a rise in homelessness, and your average Joe fleeing out of necessity. We can’t help but miss the way things used to be, and out of this ruefulness and despair comes a remarkable new film called The Last Black Man In San Francisco. It’s the directorial debut of Joe Talbot, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rob Richert, based on a story by Talbot’s lifelong friend, Jimmie Fails, who also stars.
On the surface we follow a man who can’t seem to give up his childhood home, which he was forced to leave many years prior, but it’s how the story gets told that sets it apart. Talbot uses a highly stylized, theatrical presentation, aided greatly by his gifted cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, which feels like a cross between the magical realism of Do The Right Thing-era Spike Lee and many of Spike Jonze’s music videos. We feel it right in the opening moments as we follow a young girl skipping along the street only to encounter a man in a HazMat suit preparing to face the poisonous waters in the San Francisco Bay behind them. Moving past them, the camera lands on a black street preacher who warns his audience that his people are systematically being killed off. His listeners include Jimmie and his best friend Mont (a fantastic Jonathan Majors last seen in Captive State). Tired of listening to the preacher and no longer willing to wait for a bus, they take off together on Jimmie’s skateboard to the city. This sequence really sets the tone for the film with its majestic shots of the pair gliding through the streets. It brings us back to that woozy feeling we get when we’re traversing a dream environment.
They land on a Victorian house, Jimmie’s aforementioned former home. While Mont sketches, Jimmy sneaks through the gate and paints the window sills of this neglected property. One small problem…a couple lives there and have grown tired of Jimmy’s intrusions, despite his good intentions. A chance occurrence allows Jimmy and Mont to move out of the tiny room they’ve been living in with Mont’s blind father (Danny Glover) and into his old house. Although basically squatters, these friends build a life together which we know in our guts cannot last.
It would have been so easy to tell this story as a gritty, handheld indie, but it would have lost its depth of feeling. Fails exudes a gentle kindness and an intense focus on preserving the history of a house he says his grandfather built by hand. The lyricism in his beautiful performance and in the wonderful framing would have been lost with an artless shaky cam approach. Emile Mosseri’s lush, emotional score also underscores the fairy tale aspects of this film. The soundtrack also includes some unexpected songs, including a lovely version of the classic “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Mike Marshall. This formalized style of filmmaking may not appeal to everyone, but I truly felt something. Yes, we have a very current subject matter at play, but it’s the depth of feeling and the assured directing which elevates it. Many may find it sluggish, but I kept focusing on the heart in Fail’s approach. There’s a fantastic scene in which a group of tourists on Segways pulls up to the house and hear of its history. Jimmy, from a balcony, gives an impassioned speech about his grandfather, and in this moment, we feel the gravity and the beauty of history.
Veteran actor Rob Morgan gives a low-key yet commanding performance as Jimmy’s estranged, judgmental father. I also loved seeing Tichina Arnold, who memorably played Crystal, one of the three members of the Greek Chorus in Little Shop Of Horrors, as Jimmie’s aunt. She represents an earthy, funny and much-needed lifeline to our protagonist. This film has a Greek Chorus of its own, a gang of Jimmy and Mont’s neighbors who taunt them with homophobic slurs and a resentment that the pair haven’t stuck with their old friends. We’re also treated to an ominous performance by Finn Wittrock as a cutthroat real estate agent who doesn’t exactly love that the men have set up house on a valuable property. It all adds up to paint a picture of San Francisco we rarely get to see. We feel the loss of a city that once seemed like it belonged to a utopian society give way to a rampant, heartless consumerism.
The film stumbles a bit in its last act, when people gather to watch a play. It’s here where its themes get shouted in an overstated, obvious way. Secrets and lies get exposed as everything falls apart. It came across as a very bad play that I didn’t believe any audience would sit still for, and I don’t think that was the intention. It’s a minor misstep as Talbot and company stick the landing with a haunting, indelible ending. Sure, The Last Black Man In San Francisco has its pretensions, but it has so much heart, skill, and importance, I allowed myself to get swept up in it just the same.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Last Black Man In San Francisco may be the first film set in the City By The Bay without any gay content since Vertigo! Once can easily see how Jimmy and Monty could have been a couple in another incarnation, but this film stresses the beauty of a friendship. Others perceive them as gay, and Jimmy’s sweetness gets categorized as “soft”, so I guess it gets a 5 out of 50 shades, but this is a fairly non-sexual film in any direction.
By Glenn Gaylord