Review: ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ a gorgeous, moving ode to a city in flux
There is no shortage of lovely images in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” from the Golden Gate Bridge wreathed in a gray morning mist to the flowers growing near the Hunters Point shipyard. But the loveliest is a Victorian house located in the city’s Fillmore District — a tall, angular white structure lined with red and gold trim and covered with fish-scale shingles, with a conical “witch’s hat” tower poking out of the rooftop.
The building’s beauty is a matter of architectural ingenuity, but also a matter of perspective. When you see the house — carefully framed, like every shot here, in a nearly square aspect ratio — you can all but feel the filmmakers’ affection streaming through the camera. They are the lead actor, Jimmie Fails, and the director, Joe Talbot, longtime friends and native San Franciscans collaborating on their first feature. Together they bring a delicate, handcrafted sensibility to this aching story of identity, community and the deep yearning for home.
That story is a lightly fictionalized version of Fails’ own, and the young man he plays, also named Jimmie Fails, is our guide to a San Francisco that seems equally touched by hardscrabble realism and wry, melancholic enchantment. The colors are gorgeous and vibrant, the mood forlorn yet faintly whimsical. It’s as if the filmmakers had taken a few essays from Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” and infused them with the spirit of the great Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, another filmmaker whose dry humor and bright, stylized visuals suggest something of the world both as it is and as it should be.
Jimmie’s solemn, soulful gaze is matched by that of his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a constant companion who lets him crash on the floor of his cramped bedroom every night. Early on we follow the two of them as they ride together on Jimmie’s skateboard — a sight gag as touching as it is gently amusing — and make their way along the waterfront, into the heart of a pulsing, teeming city with which they feel increasingly out of step.
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Their alienation is not strictly a matter of racial difference. Jimmie and Mont, both working-class African Americans in their 20s, may cast occasional bemused glances at the influx of young, affluent white residents in their rapidly gentrifying city. But they also don’t really fit in with the other black guys in their neighborhood, several of whom hold court on the same street every day, like a kind of ebulliently trash-talking Greek chorus.
Jimmie and Mont are quieter by temperament. Mont works as a fishmonger, but he is also an aspiring artist and playwright; we see him drawing in his sketchbook and watching classic films on TV, patiently summarizing the plot for his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Jimmie works as an elder-care nurse, though his real job is preserving the memory of that old Victorian, his childhood home. Years after his father (a seething Rob Morgan) lost the property, Jimmie still regularly drops by to touch up the paint and tend to the garden, much to the chagrin of the house’s current occupants.
But when the house is abruptly vacated and put on the market, Jimmie seizes his opportunity and secretly moves in with Mont, working tirelessly to restore the place to its former glory. The house, even more lovingly photographed from inside, is a squatter’s paradise with its antique furnishings and intricate woodwork. But it is also a rich repository of old memories and mythologies, as well as an argument that true ownership transcends matters of title and deed.
According to family lore, Jimmie’s grandfather built the house, detail by ornate detail, in the 1940s. There weren’t many black people in the city back then — his grandfather was jokingly hailed as the first, Jimmie says — until the thousands of Japanese Americans who once populated the Fillmore were sent to internment camps during World War II. That cruel uprooting, briefly acknowledged here, coincided with the arrival of African Americans fleeing oppression in the South, many of whom moved into the Fillmore and began working in the city’s shipyards.
By the time this movie opens, several generations have passed and another cultural migration has taken place. Like “Blindspotting” and “Sorry to Bother You,” last year’s notable Oakland-themed double bill, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” casts a skeptical eye at the Bay Area tech boom and its displacement of an already marginalized minority population. But in tone, style and rhythm, the movie bears little resemblance to those earlier pictures (which did not, of course, particularly resemble each other).
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Jimmie’s story is too specific and personal to be dismissed as a simple narrative of socioeconomic discontent, and it carries a droll vein of humor that inoculates the movie against self-pity. Jimmie and Mont may be reserved on the surface, but they are also unwitting folk heroes in a contemporary urban picaresque. Their emotions find expression not only in their work — a play Mont is writing, the labor Jimmie pours into his old home — but also in the filmmaking, in the intense hues of Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography and the churning, majestic strains of Emile Mosseri’s score. (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” won two jury prizes at the recent Sundance Film Festival, including one for Talbot’s direction.)
Fails, a first-time actor, has the kind of effortless, open-hearted screen presence that would brighten even a less autobiographical narrative. He and Majors at times achieve the winsome rapport and understated pathos of a great silent-comedy duo. (That extends to the endearingly mismatched outfits they wear day after day: Jimmie in a red plaid shirt, Mont in a light brown sports coat.) The characters’ friendship lends the story an easy emotional anchor, but it crucially does not dictate the limits of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” or its range of dramatic interest.
With the exception of an opportunistic real-estate agent (Finn Wittrock) who is the closest thing here to a conventional villain, nearly every character we meet suggests a deep inner life beyond the frame. These include Jimmie and Mont’s friend Kofi (an excellent Jamal Trulove), one of many individuals who subtly dismantle whatever assumptions the audience may harbor about black masculinity. There’s a street preacher (Willie Hen) whose sermons are a mostly unheard rebuke to public complacency, and also a long-absent figure from Jimmie’s childhood who throws his personal tragedy into sharp, sudden relief.
A patchwork of impressions, ruminations and unsolved mysteries, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” teems and even overflows with life and love, some might argue at the cost of narrative focus or momentum. That strikes me as precisely the point. Leisurely in its rhythms and urgently political in its concerns, the movie stands in humble, defiant opposition to the forces that are shaping and homogenizing too much of our own contemporary reality, the impulse to hurry not least among them. You don’t truly know something — a city, a house, a life or a work of art — until you’re willing to meander.
‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’
Rating: R, for language, brief nudity and drug use
When: Opens Friday
Where: AMC Fashion Valley, AMC La Jolla, Angelika Carmel Mountain
Running time: 2 hours
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firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @JustinCChang
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