Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, two San Francisco natives, met in middle school before working together on a short film and eventually a feature about the unprecedented changes facing their city. Launched as a Kickstarter campaign in April 2015, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is as unique as the story of its production.
Based largely on the story of Fails’s life, The Last Black Man in San Francisco straddles the line between nonfiction and fantasy. The story, by Fails and Talbot, was drafted into a screenplay by Rob Richert and Talbot before becoming a movie starring Fails and directed by Talbot.
The story follows Jimmie (Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), two young black men living in the Bay Area with Montgomery’s grandfather, Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). On a regular basis, the pair skateboard, bus, or hitchhike their way to San Francisco’s famed Fillmore District, where they perform repairs and maintenance on Jimmie’s childhood home, a stunning Victorian home built by Jimmie’s grandfather.
Jimmie completes this handiwork against the wishes of the homeowners, who question his sanity as well as his commitment to the property, where his family was foreclosed upon. Montgomery, meanwhile, is an aspiring playwright who gets by as a fishmonger when he isn’t helping Jimmie find a way to re-acquire his family home.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s pace is meandering, following in the footsteps of its wandering protagonists; the movie is more concept than plot, more statement than story. The runtime is just 120 minutes, but without much plot to chew, you can feel all of its two hours.
Talbot’s passionate, and, at times, scattershot film delivers all the telltale signs of a first-time director. The Last Black Man’s unfocused approach to a side plot around the death of a young black man makes it feels like an afterthought instead of a punch to the gut.
Still, Talbot, Fails, Majors, Glover, and the rest of the cast and crew do more right than wrong. The Last Black Man is simultaneously flawed and one of the best movies of the year so far. A beautiful, swelling score often picks up the slack and adds the emotional oomph that the film needs to land its most salient points. Peppering in a gorgeous rendition of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by a street performer doesn’t hurt, either.
There is an inherent mysticism to The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A street preacher stands on a milk crate in a deserted area, sermonizing no one; a play is performed in an attic; the bay behind Grandpa Allen’s house is wordlessly treated by workers in HAZMAT suits. Magic realism is a genre actively avoided by filmmakers, but Talbot and Fails are perfectly at home in it. The genre suits the movie, and oddly enough, its titular city.
San Francisco is among the world’s finest canvases, and Talbot exploits it. Shots of the city’s square hills, glistening waters, and trademarked architecture are enough to take your breath away. The film doesn’t shy away from the negative, either, briefly tackling San Francisco’s tech bros, and more seriously, the city’s homeless in comitragic fashion. Even outsiders unfamiliar with the city’s changing culture and failure to solve its housing crisis will recognize these scenes as more than window dressing.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an ode to the city’s bohemian roots and endless beauty. Only the beauty will survive gentrification as skyrocketing rent forces its native inhabitants out. Fails and Talbot effectively warn us: they don’t recognize this version of the City by the Bay. As with Jimmie’s old house, you know the location, but not the occupants.