The first thing about The Last Black Man In San Francisco that grabbed my attention was the title. It projects a vibe of activism, sadness, pride and gentrification — all themes woven into the film’s exquisite story. But ultimately, The Last Black Man In San Francisco speaks to the importance of home and community in a way that left my heart racing.
“It’s not a film that’s going after people. The title may make people feel that way,” the film’s director, Joe Talbot, said at its San Francisco premiere. “It’s … a love letter to San Francisco.” The movie, which earned accolades at Sundance earlier this year, opens widely Friday.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco follows Jimmie Fails, who works at a nursing home and dreams of living in the Victorian home his grandfather built decades ago. Jimmy’s ideals of home and family obscure him to the reality of what San Francisco life is in 2019. He is part of a shrinking black community that’s been pushed aside by the affluent, for decades.
Playing Horatio to Jimmy’s Hamlet is his best friend, playwright Mont (Jonathan Majors). The two search for a connection to their lost community and for a sense of purpose within a new San Francisco filled with million-dollar houses and tech bros partying on trolley buses.
The film lets their vulnerabilities and humanity shine, something black characters still don’t get enough of on screen. And it’s their humanity that will ultimately shake you, make you laugh and make you angry about what’s happened to their place in San Francisco, both literally and metaphorically.
Jimmie Fails is played by actor Jimmie Fails, who grew up in San Francisco with Talbot. The story is based on what actually happened to Fails’ family. After living in an old Victorian home with his father, aunt, uncle and cousins, Fails was forced to relocate to a housing project, where he met Talbot.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco fictionalizes Fails’ and Talbot’s experiences while drawing influences from the Greek epic poem The Odyssey, even utilizing a modern-day version of a Greek chorus in the form of a street crew that chastises Jimmy and Mont.
The film takes on the gentrification of San Francisco not with a slap to your face, but by baking it into the hearts of its characters and neighborhoods. You see the burden of being pushed aside instead of being preached to about it.
“If we can generate the conversation and listen to what young people say, we’ll find that our expectations are not too different than what their expectations are,” said Danny Glover, who both acted in the film and produced it.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the most beautiful and authentic the city has ever looked on film. At one point, there’s a long shot down California Street, with its massive hill taking up most of the screen. The top of the Bay Bridge pokes over the top as Jimmy zig-zags down the hill on a skateboard. The cinematic feat itself is impressive because of the steep hill, but the shot also shows just how isolated Jimmy is by this beautiful city.
While Talbot’s poetic eye shows the hard realities of a changing city, he also focuses on what makes San Francisco special. Scenes are poignantly dotted with skaters, artists, nudists and fog. You won’t see “that shot” of the Golden Gate Bridge shown in nearly all other films set in San Francisco. Instead you experience the nooks, crannies and vistas only someone who’s lived here knows.
The visual beauty is driven by Emile Mosseri’s hypnotic score. If the heart of the film is the relationship between Jimmy and Mont, the music is its breath.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco stars Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, Thora Birch, Jamal Trulove, Isiain Lalime, Antoine Redus, Jeivon Parker and Jordan Gomes.
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