Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the directorial debut of Joe Talbot, who could certainly pass as having several decades more experience. This is the story of Jimmie Fails, a young black man played by an actor who shares the same name, as this is a movie that speaks of certain emotional truths. Jimmie begins to squat in the suddenly unoccupied house that was once his childhood home, a symbol of both his family’s former pride and the increasingly gentrified city San Francisco has become.

From the beginning, The Last Black Man in San Francisco sets itself apart from most films this year with stellar cinematography. Every shot of this film has lovely composition, each image suggesting a certain sense of relationship between humans and the city. Many moments act as motion paintings, portraits of people in their everyday environment.

The opening is evocative, following a young girl as she walks along a sidewalk swarming with men in Hazmat suits, a suggestion that this neighborhood is either unsafe for its inhabitants or at least viewed as such by outsiders. We soon follow Jimmie and his friend Montgomery Allen as they share a skateboard through the city, an image that establishes their closeness quicker than any words could. This is a film that finds beauty in everyday life, letting its camera linger on people passing by or within the rooms of the great estate at its center.

As that girl walks down that Hazmat-riddled road, a soapbox preacher derides the city for failing to take action sooner. His words are repeated throughout, this film operating as a poem with several key lines serving as refrains. Most important is the phrase “you can’t hate it unless you love it,” so succinctly summarizing Jimmie’s relationship to this city, to his life, to each person in it.

The beauty of this language and imagery is matched by Talbot’s sense of sound. Conversations and city noises are frequently silenced and replaced with music. The opening is dotted with a minimal but bombastic score, recalling Phillip Glass in the way it paints a city in decay. This muting creates a distance that adds to the sense of this being a more poetic than narrative film, its concepts representative of an issue that stretches far beyond its characters.

The film likewise makes great use of more familiar songs, such as a cover of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” or an unexpected yet effective use of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” over a group of rowdy young men who spend most of this film mocking the lead duo. Again, these moments suggest a sense of sadness not immediately apparent in the images being captured, as this is a film riding on a sense of aimlessness.

All of these elements are in service of an effectively symbolic narrative, a story as much about gentrification as it deals with concepts of selfhood. Jimmie defines himself with this old house, desperate to reclaim what his grandfather built. His identity is tied into this location that is largely rejecting people like him. There are certain moments within this film where concepts seem to be laid on too thick, but it largely succeeds at painting a picture outside its own limits.

The relationship between Jimmie and Montgomery guides us through most of this film, and their bond is one of surprising beauty. This is the type of closeness that comes from an unabashed sense of platonic love, and both actors fully sell their roles. It’s as if both men would be lost without each other’s support, their bond allowing one to speak hard truths the other would rather deny. Montgomery is key in helping Jimmie find his own worth.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is film as poetry, a work that places its imagery and statements above all else. Despite this, it approaches every element with a fantastic eye for detail, a rare film where every frame could pass as a painting due to its choice of lighting and positioning of figures. This is a work of pure aesthetic beauty with a meaningful heart, bubbling with love for a city that never quite seems to love back as much as its people deserve.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

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