The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an unexpected, powerful examination of the human condition through complex emotions. Jimmie Fails, whose own life this film is based on, is a breath of fresh air.
Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is not what you think it is, and that’s only the beginning of a beautiful journey which slowly unfolds through strong characters and themes that will resonate with audiences for years to come.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, based on Jimmie Fails’ own life, has a harmony about it as a man who works to preserve his heritage in the form of a house his grandfather built. The home, a Victorian mansion in the Fillmore District, serves as the centerpiece of gentrification, of love, of family, and of self.
Fails, who plays himself, is sublime. There is a determination about the way he goes in the story. He’s committed to restoring his legacy. His friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors) is an artist and has a unique view of the world, a layer that shapes the direction the story takes us. Neither Fails nor Montgomery are employed, but they share a room together along with Montgomery’s grandfather, Allen played by Danny Glover.
Joe Talbot, who won the Sundance Best Directing award for his debut film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco along with a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration, uses his entire palette to slowly unveil the details behind the story. The pacing is purposeful, but is never distracting.
The key to this story is in the details and its unique twists and turns needed the pacing to be spot on. Talbot enlisted the help of David Marks, who edited Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far for Gus Van Sant last year as they ease us into the shifting tides of the Bayfront area where Jimmie and Montgomery live to the Fillmore District where the house stands.
As a character, Fails is quiescent allowing Talbot and co-screenwriter Rob Richert to move the story forward through visual cues rather than dialogue. Within the calm, quiet demeanor, Fails also uses his body language with a fervor and a passion. We know what he wants, we understand why he wants it and the story ultimately and painfully explains the ramifications of his actions.
The emotion of pain is manifested in several, beautiful ways in this film as we learn more about Jimmie through his father, James Sr. (Rob Morgan). There’s a playfulness about James Sr., but when it comes to Jimmie and the house, he becomes very serious as we learn the lessons of how the Bay Area has changed over the years, and continues to change.
As I watched The Last Black Man in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but recall the underseen If Beale Street Could Talk, which looks at similar themes. If asked today what my favorite movie of 2019 is, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco sits at the top of that list. It is magnetic, literally poetry in motion. From Talbot’s unique point of view to the entire ensemble and the technical team behind the camera, I can easily understand why this film won the awards it did at Sundance.
Now in theaters, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is rated R.