The Last Black Man In San Francisco | Joe Talbot | June 7, 2019
Within the sublime opening moments of Joe Talbot’s sensational directorial debut The Last Black Man In San Francisco, you can sense just how near and dear San Francisco is to his heart. Hitting on themes of gentrification and trying to find solace in the place you love and call home, despite it turning into something more foreign than familiar, it’s like a love letter to his beloved city, while at the same time acting also an alarming and urgent wake-up call.
We witness this inner-turmoil through the eyes of Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails playing himself in an autobiographical role) and his good friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors). They live and breathe San Francisco despite being caught in between the tale of two cities with the upheaval of their old neighborhood and the onslaught of transplants who are making them feel like outcasts in their very own hometown. The city acts as a living breathing character, with Jimmie Fails’ old childhood home as the beating heart and soul. Jimmie has been crashing – along with Montgomery – at the house of Montgomery’s Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover), but spends just as much time going back to his old childhood home tending to the exterior paint and garden, despite an older white couple living there now who are split between being appreciative of his efforts and equally exhausted and confused by his presence.
The house means everything to him, and it’s all he has left both physically and spiritually that keeps him rooted in the old San Francisco. Fails’ grandfather built it with his own two hands and, in many ways, is treated like a spiritual realization of the one thing in his life that seems to be missing: family, security, a home. He doesn’t have a great relationship with his father (Mudbound‘s Rob Morgan) or mother, making the physical house something for him to hold onto to fill that void. Things take a turn when a legal dispute between one of the owners’ family leaves the house vacant, allowing Jimmie and Montgomery to squat there and turn the place into their own.
Talbot’s direction allows the free-flowing spirit and poetic feel of the film to be equally front and center as the actual plot (based on a story he co-wrote with Rob Richert), with some astonishing cinematography from Adam Newport-Berra and a stirring score by Emile Mosseri that give it all a dreamlike state of being that often feels like a play unfolding in front of your eyes in the most ambitious fashion.
The way that Talbot captures these little slices of life and reality, while also giving it a visually dazzling otherworldly nature that feels like a kinetic dream more than reality, is part of the magic. For a first-time director, his vision is fully realized and assured. There are some moments that are perplexing or that don’t completely land, but as far as directorial debuts come, this is an unquestionable triumph that sticks with you long after you leave the theater.
He so powerfully navigates the troubled waters of the impact that gentrification on his city, hollowing out its soul and pushing out its original inhabitants so the rich can get richer. There are also questions about the stories and truths that are passed down from one generation to another and how the validity of those reflect upon how you look not only at your family but most importantly yourself.
Its ambition may be too much for more traditional plot-driven viewers but for those who buy into what Talbot is selling, it will transport you into this world and you’ll be right alongside these characters feeling as tightly bound to the land of San Francisco as they do. Which isn’t hard when you probably see it happening in real-time to whatever city you may call home. It’s built around little moments that stick with you, such as a simple conversation on a bus shared by two transplants (one played by Thora Birch in more of a cameo than a role) who claim to hate San Francisco as Fails sits nearby, visibly troubled by how dismissive they are of his beloved city. He tells them that they have no right to hate it if they never loved it, and although one of the women tunes him out completely, the other woman ruminates on his words. It’s such a simple yet powerful moment that lands like a punch straight to the gut.
Front and center are the lead performances from Fails and Majors, and both stand out in their own way. This is Fails’ debut performance, aside from the short he and Talbot made to help get the film made through crowdfunding. He’s a natural presence on-screen and flashes a ton of untapped potential while still fully capable of carrying the film. Majors has been slowly been gaining some big on-screen roles in recent years (Hostiles, White Boy Rick, Captive State), but he hasn’t been able to show off his incredible range as he does here, stealing literally every scene he’s in. The film is littered with memorable supporting turns from Danny Glover, Rob Morgan, Finn Wittrock, Tichina Arnold, Jamal Trulove, and Mike Epps, featured in a rare dramatic role – if not leaning towards comedy.
With some stirring cinematography and the sort of imaginative filmmaking that seems so rare in this day and age, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is an immediate standout in 2019 that caught my attention in the way previous triumphs and reflects the passion I felt when watching recent favorites such as Beasts of the Southern Wild or Moonlight. Talbot has something to say and does so in a thoughtful and melancholic fashion that takes you on an emotional journey that becomes fully realized and heartbreaking beautiful during its final moments, completely sticking the landing and leaving you absolutely breathless, with nothing to do but wipe away those tears, turn to yourself, and reflect completely and utterly moved.