Wherever you look, you probably won’t find a movie quite like The Last Black Man in San Francisco. While sharing many stylistic and thematic elements with the lusciously melancholic realism of Barry Jenkins’ work, Joe Talbot’s film has a gorgeous voice and presence, along with a lasting, lingering staying power, that’s all its own.
Loosely based on his own life, Jimmie Fails stars as himself as San Francisco’s titular last black man (sort of). As the old remains of his beloved city’s neighborhoods are torn down and rebuilt into luxury yuppy houses, Jimmie’s singular purpose stays fixed on servicing and upkeeping the home his grandfather built in the early twentieth century.
Unfortunately for Jimmie, the house no longer belongs to his family due to an undisclosed incident involving his father, and his frequent maintenance visits often land him in trouble with its negligent new owners. But when the tenants are forced to leave the house following another transfer of ownership, Jimmie and his best friend, Montgomery, move into the empty house to live the good life they crave and believe they deserve.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a very aimless film, which turns out as both a good and bad thing. Talbot’s directing style is wholly in the moment, milking every bit of emotion from each scene with a relishing sense of freedom that patiently takes its time without any rush or worry. Paired with Emile Mosseri’s soulful music scored alongside the sounds and tunes of San Francisco, the film is a subtly turbulent emotional experience that sets you in the culture of the city as much as it tells its story.
Richly explored, Jimmie and Montgomery’s journey has a lot of fascinating things to say about black masculinity and identity before, during, and after the gentrification of predominantly minority neighborhoods. It’s a topic that’s been thoroughly covered in the last few years of the recent black film renaissance, most notably in last year’s Blindspotting, but the film nonetheless delivers new little insights and themes that continue to captivate thanks to its multi-layered cast of characters.
Fails and Jonathan Majors are as believable as they are excellent in their respective roles, playing their parts with a powerful restraint that conveys substantially more motivation and dramatic depth with less “acting” than the Hollywood standard. There’s a simple beauty to the highs and lows carrying through Jimmie’s plight to resecure the legacy of his family home, and while Fails never fails to capture the quietly devastating desperation driving him, Majors’ performance resonates in harmony with his reserved, observational composure.
Their two tied stories and the themes erupting from them are great, but they’re unfortunately also interrupted by long stretches of padded out, self-indulgent filmmaking that hurt their effectiveness. The Last Black Man in San Francisco often falls into unevenly paced chunks of on-off character and narrative development that are, in the end, heavily backloaded, and resultingly, Talbot frequently risks losing one’s interest from the mostly drab, barely stylized verité visuals that fail to compensate or balance out the many stretches of meandering slowness. For all his devotion to creating an experiential cinematic story, Talbot has made a film that, for the most part, just isn’t very rewarding or enjoyable to watch. Additionally, the poor sound mixing makes it hard to hear a lot of the actors’ already sparse dialogue, a matter made worse by many of the actors’ frustratingly unintelligible line delivery. Place the blame on my theater’s speakers, my wistfully waning attentiveness, or the film’s execution itself, but I felt like I often missed a lot of casually mentioned details that would have fleshed out the story through no fault of my own.
There’s a lot of provocative and thoughtful material to savor in The Last Man in San Francisco, but also just as much, if not more filler content from Joe Talbot’s artistic vision that harshes the film’s powerful affect.