If you’re anything like me — and may the gods have pity on you if you are — then you’ve grown quite tired of the countless obvious corporate products that have limped into multiplexes so far this summer season. Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Aladdin, Dark Phoenix, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Men in Black: International, the list goes on and on…and shows no signs of stopping. But then something like The Last Black Man in San Francisco comes around and reinvigorates my love for all things film.
It’s moments like this when I’m reminded of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III: “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back IN!” (I think that line works a lot better here than in the actual movie, don’t you think?)
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Joe Talbot
Written By: Joe Talbot and Rob Richert
Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, and Finn Wittrock
Jimmie (Fails) dreams of living in a beautiful Victorian home in the middle of San Francisco, the same one that his grandfather built many years ago. Aided by his best friend Mont (Majors), Jimmie looks to reclaim the home that he believes belongs to him and his family. But the ever-changing landscape of San Francisco and the people that inhabit it may not allow this particular fate.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is Many Years in the Making
As is the case for many independent filmmakers hoping to make their mark in the industry, Joe Talbot had years to mature and clean up his script to create the movie that is in theaters today. Talbot and Fails grew up together in a San Francisco neighborhood as self-proclaimed misfits, often taking walks through the streets and sharing their stories together. It’s from those stories where The Last Black Man in San Francisco took shape, as the story is an amalgam of some of Fails’ moments in life.
The duo began pre-production on the film back in 2015, though admittedly things didn’t exactly take off until A24 and Plan B Entertainment got involved in 2018. At that point, while living at home and working on the film, Talbot was able to tell skeptical neighbors that his film was going to be executive produced by Brad Pitt (the acting CEO of Plan B). I’m sure that quelled any misgivings he might have faced!
Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are Staggeringly Good
Get ready to see a lot more of Jimmie Fails in the near future. His performance is very naturalistic, one that you would see from a seasoned pro — like his screen partner Danny Glover — not someone who is in their first feature-length film. His character, also named Jimmie to call attention to the true nature of this story, has a particular twinkle in his eye, a sense of wonder reserved only for children in a Spielberg film. Through his eyes, one truly gets the sense of the love that certain individuals have for San Francisco and the lack thereof for an unfortunate amount of others.
Jonathan Majors is nothing short of a revelation as Mont, the best friend to Jimmie (within the world of the film, that is). Jimmie is the doer of the two of them, whereas Mont is the listener, the one who sits back and takes in everything around him before speaking or making a decision. Pairing nicely with The Last Black Man in San Francisco‘s thematic beats, Mont looks at all aspects of life as art in one way or another, capturing the beauty of just about everything, whether it be a group of friends talking smack to each other or the muddy water in the Bay. He’s particular, but never a caricature of someone with those same traits. Think Napoleon Dynamite, but without the self-parody. He’s entirely earnest and thoughtful, and the beating heart of this movie.
These two actors have such a wonderful, genuine onscreen friendship. Often times they’ll (literally) squeal with giddiness for their situation. You can’t help but feel that they’ll both be in our lives for years to come.
Joe Talbot Films This Story with a Sense of Wonder and Awe
Normally when a critic notes that it’s hard to pin down the tone of the movie, that would be a serious problem. Strangely, it’s actually The Last Black Man in San Francisco‘s greatest achievement. The film is a drama that is always playful, benefiting greatly from the chemistry among the cast. However, it often borders on the surreal, most evident by a three-eyed fish that flops onto Mont’s boat out in the Bay or the stage-like presentation of a few verbose scenes. The love that these characters have for San Francisco often manifests in reality-adjacent actions and sensations; it’s 100% in the real world, but with an extra 7% thrown in there just to give everything a certain heightened feeling.
Especially, I love how Talbot and his cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra captured this story. There’s so much warmth and sunlight injected into each frame; it gives new meaning to the nickname “The Golden City.”
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the few recent movies to be in awe of its own scenery and structures. Special care is given to the tiniest moments, such as a beam of sunlight cascading through a room via stained glass, highlighting the hints of dust and particles that are gently moving through these hallowed rooms. It’s a movie about a house, yet it feels like so much more to these characters.
A Sprawling Story with Much on its Mind
Perhaps The Last Black Man in San Francisco could have trimmed 10-15 minutes off its runtime; you begin to feel its 2-hour running time in its second and third acts. However, that additional time is spent attempting to build a serious cultural discussion, so one can’t totally fault Joe Talbot for his ambition.
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the sheer bluntness of the film’s title — it’s used to great effect given how the story unfolds.
As you might expect, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is all about gentrification and the societal changes that come with it. It’s rather fascinating that we’ve seen a wave in similar stories in the Bay Area over the last few years, highlighted by 2018’s Blindspotting and every Ryan Coogler movie not named Creed. For perspective, the area has seen its African-American population drop from 13.4% in 1970 to around 6% today.
Joe Talbot addresses this issue with a deft touch, commenting on the type of love that a person can have for a city while discussing the true meaning of ownership. And as with most things in our existence, there’s plenty of nuance and depth; as a result, the film is much more accessible and honest.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is beautifully composed on many accounts, anchored by two star-making performances from Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors. Seriously, you’ll be seeing a LOT more of these two in the coming years.
However, I think the true winner here is Joe Talbot, who found a way to pay respects and simultaneously critique his home, adding shades of grey and complexity to what is touchy subject for some. And though The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a bit aimless at times, there’s plenty of beauty in even the most aimless of moments, making it easy to drink in this portrayal of West Coast culture.
A24 does it again!
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[…] is Adam Newport-Berra, the cinematographer, who continues his fantastic work after films such as The Last Black Man in San Francisco (arguably the best-looking movie of 2019). Filming the short in one continuous take and showcasing […]
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