The first thing one notices about Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is how sunny it is. Not just tonally — though the description applies — but literally; Talbot and his cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, have a knack for catching the golden tinge of the light. Seeing it, one realizes how many films are missing that pleasant hue. Though visually sumptuous, The Last Black Man in San Francisco also has plenty of substance to chew over, concerning itself with racism, classism, and gentrification, while rarely falling into didacticism or simplistic thinking. While watching it, I was filled with the ecstasy of discovery at the voice of an important new filmmaker.
In The Last Black Man, Jimmie Fails (playing a character of the same name) stars as a man barely making it in the Bay Area. He lives with his friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who shares a small home with his blind grandfather, played by Danny Glover. Jimmie is motivated by a quixotic quest to take ownership of the Victorian-style house his family once owned in a prosperous black neighborhood, which has since been taken over by upwardly mobile white couples. Every other week he visits the elegant, turreted house to touch up the paint on the exterior and to tend to the plants. Jimmie is engaging in wishful thinking, however; the house would be worth millions of dollars in today’s real estate market, and he’ll never be able to afford it on his nursing salary. As Jimmie sets out on a doomed quest to regain the house, Montgomery finally zeroes in on the subject of a play he’s been trying to write, inspired by Jimmie’s aspirations.
This is Fails’ first performance in a feature, yet he has the assured air of someone who was meant to do this. He received a story credit on the film, and portions of it are autobiographical, so those lived experiences may be what contributes his confidence on screen. Majors is adept at providing much of The Last Black Man’s comic relief, though he never devolves into a clown. Even when he and Fails are at their silliest, they are given a sense of importance by Emile Mosseri’s orchestral score, which has a kind of hopeful, Copland-like quality. Anyone listening would know the music referred to a particularly American story, even if the plot wasn’t obvious.
Among all the film’s successes, one flaw particularly stands out. Across the street from Montgomery’s house congregates a group of shit-talkers, streetwise guys who insult Jimmie and Montgomery for their perceived capitulation to white culture. The men come off as caricature, even as the rest of the film feels so real. It’s not clear if they’re a part of Fails’ early conception or Talbot’s final screenplay, but their sections ring false. Still, Talbot and Fails eventually find more compelling uses for the characters.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is just how leisurely it is in telling its story. It takes wonderful little detours to absorb the culture of San Francisco and survey its denizens. Some viewers will want a tighter, more plot-driven film, but I could have easily taken another hour to live in its world.