This review appears in Alta Issue #8, which will be available on newsstands in July 2019.
Nearly anyone who’s lived in San Francisco over the past couple of decades will recognize the ache at the heart of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It’s something that viewers in many communities will relate to, but that feels particularly acute in the city where this indie drama takes place: that sense of loss shared among people who’ve been in S.F. long enough to feel the city become no longer theirs, its fabled Left Coast character steadily eroded by the unstoppable force of New Money.
But however polemical that (or the film’s title) may sound, Joe Talbot’s first feature is hardly an overt screed—about rising economic disparity, the pushing out of people of color, development run amok, or anything else of pressing political specificity. Instead, it’s an intoxicatingly lyrical fable in which skateboarders coast the hills in slo-mo like urban knights and apparent neighborhood gangbangers become a kind of comical Greek chorus. The issues are here, yet they’re seldom spelled out in a movie whose lament for a lost, perhaps partly mythical past city generates its own dreamlike state of poetical near-rhapsody.
Talbot, 28 and a fifth-generation San Franciscan, and fellow native son Jimmie Fails, 24, have spun a plaintive fantasy out of the latter’s real-life story, as someone whose family once had a splendid Victorian in the Lower Fillmore, the neighborhood formerly known as the Harlem of the West. They lost it amidst the district’s endless redevelopment, a hardship reducing Fails and his father to a succession of shelters, housing projects, and other transitory substitutes for “home.”
In Last Black Man, Fails plays a fictionalized version of himself, a rudderless exile crashing on the floor of his best and only friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright. They live in the cluttered Hunters Point abode of Mont’s grandpa (Danny Glover), who helped build the naval shipyards that, with their legacy of industrial toxins, still haunt that neighborhood, San Francisco’s last substantial African American community.
When Jimmie discovers that his family’s old house in the Lower Fillmore (“played” by a spectacular building in the Mission, a neighborhood undergoing its own redevelopment and gentrification battles) has been vacated by its latest owners owing to an inheritance squabble, he can’t resist seeing the news as a permission slip from providence, none too surreptitiously moving himself and Mont in. Squatting with baronial panache, they set out to restore the place to its former glory, seizing the chance to create something beautiful out of the broken pieces of their lives.
Of course, this legally dubious idyll can’t last. Talbot and Fails’s story is suffused with an underlying sadness that in the end becomes almost unbearably real, even as the film retains a certain fanciful distance. You might well detect in its grieving tone the suggestion of matters considerably larger than one man’s homesickness. Not least among them is the echo of all those past social, political, and artistic epochs that could never occur in the S.F. of today—where new arrivals practically need a six-figure salary to get a day pass. There’s even a heart-stopping rendition by a homeless person of the Top 40 classic “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” reminding viewers that there was a Summer of Love long before the Perpetual Spring Break of Tech Bros.
Indeed, the wistful Last Black Man has more in common tonally with such vintage hippie celluloid as Harold and Maude and Petulia than it does with Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, or other recent distinctive movies addressing Bay Area gentrification and race. Barry Jenkins contributed perhaps the first salvo in that latter micro-genre with his 2008 debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, but the revelation that Talbot and co. have contrived here is more comparable to Jenkins’s subsequent Moonlight. The psychological delicacy, pensive stillness, and sophisticated aesthetics that Oscar-winning film brought to brutal thematic terrain feel similarly applied here. Yet this is a different story about a different if equally profound loss, and there’s no question the film’s gorgeous style is all its own.
Arriving in theaters on a wave of critical praise, as well as two major Sundance prizes, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film that will appeal to many. But it’s going to make a grateful, tearful mess of those local viewers who know exactly what Talbot’s talking about.
• Directed by Joe Talbot
• Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold
• Theatrical release date: June 7, 2019
• 120 minutes
Three great films about life in San Francisco—coming, going, or staying
Psych-Out, directed by Richard Rush (1968): Susan Strasberg is a deaf-mute runaway to the Haight at its height of hippiedom—and Jack Nicholson a ponytailed guitarist named Stoney—in this gloriously cheesy psychedelic relic.
Boom: The Sound of Eviction, directed by Francine Cavanaugh, A. Mark Liiv, and Adams Wood (2001): Before the tech boom, there was the dot-com boom, a shorter-lived tsunami whose devastating effect on San Francisco’s poorer communities is charted in this activist documentary.
Medicine for Melancholy, directed by Barry Jenkins (2008): In the wake of a one-night stand, two young San Franciscans (Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins) ponder their differences, which seem to personify the city’s fabled bohemian past and rapidly upscaling present.