The opening scene to Joe Talbot’s directorial feature debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, based on a story by the film’s lead performer Jimmie Fails, packs in a lot. So much so that it can be off-putting. It starts on a child walking down the street, who finds blocking her path a sanitation worker in a hazmat suit. They are cleaning the heavily contaminated water of the San Francisco Bay. The camera keeps on her for a time, then pivots to a man on a soapbox decrying the poor current state of the city—“whole blocks half in the past, half in the future.”
We then settle on our protagonists, who sit at a bus stop watching the man preach. Jimmie Fails (played by Fails) and Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) get impatient of the bus (which never seems to come when they want it to) and decide to skateboard to their destination instead. The pair stand on one skateboard and coast across the city. Where they land is Jimmie’s childhood home, which his family no longer owns. Jimmie and Mont proceed to trespass on the property in order to keep the estate tidy. When the owners find him, Jimmie is painting the windowsills with a fresh coat of red. “Hold on. I’m almost done,” he says. And, when they insist on him leaving their property: “I’ll finish it tomorrow.”
Jimmie has one undying goal, and that is to never give up this house. When a family squabble causes the current homeowners to leave, Jimmie is given both a blessing and a curse. He is able to enter the home and make it his own again. However, without a real owner, it is only a manner of time before the plot of land goes back on the market. This could mean the destruction of the house in favor of more modern architecture.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco has an interesting rhythm to it. The somewhat cluttered opening scene illustrates a complication that rhythm poses. It is jarring and offbeat for Talbot to introduce these moments in close succession. He will come back to this presentation of offbeat moments on occasion. It can throw the film off-kilter, but only for the moment. In terms of the opening, the film finds its groove not long afterwards with tender moment after tender moment. When the tenderness is juxtaposed with the occasional haunting image, like when Mont recites lines from his newest play on a pier surrounded by contaminated water, it makes for a stirring experience.
Even when Talbot and his screenwriting partner Rob Richert present something non sequitur and out of left field (a naked man at a bus stop, for example) there is stacked against it a reality to the situation that is unshakeable. In the case of the naked man, it is a rowdy party bus pumping an electronic remix of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” that shocks the moment out of absurdity.
Even when a slightly silly premise is introduced, it cannot escape the weary melancholy of Jimmie’s situation. Even if a scene like this initially appears a poor fit for the tone and story, it comes back around to the realities at the heart of the film. In attempting this risky tonal balance, Talbot crafts a unique film rich with humor and honesty.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is littered with humanity. Numerous moments stand out. Early on, the image of Jimmie, Mont, and Mont’s father (Danny Glover) watching a film on TV. Later, a sequence involving a performance of the play Mont has written. Perhaps one of the more brittle moments in the film is its most compelling, and that is Mont confronting a group of posturing men, acting the director and complimenting their acting performances.
The aforementioned scenes all forefront Mont, the second fiddle to Jimmie but the clear champion of the film. Jonathan Majors steals scenes time and time again, and his performance will certainly prove to be one of the best of the year.
There is plenty more in The Last Black Man in San Francisco which can be praised. The lighting. The score. The haunting refrain of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” The power of Fails’ non-verbal acting. What stays with you at the end of the film may be a small combination of these aspects or a certain combination of scenes, but these pieces add up to an enriched whole that is bursting at the seams with the spirited life of humanity.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)