A young man searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.
Director: Joe Talbot
Writers: Joe Talbot (story by), Jimmie Fails (story by)
Stars: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover
Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is the tale of two friends, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), and a Victorian home in the middle of a highly gentrified neighborhood. Jimmie claims that his grandfather built every part of the home back in the 1940s, and he just wants it back in the family. The house, which he goes so far as to paint when its current owner is not home, is more than just a building to him. It’s a heartbreaking symbol for how the whole city he grew up in has changed, and has devalued the lives of men and women like him. But this emotional set-up for the script, co-written by Fails and Talbot, is only just the foundation for what proves to be a singular, luminous American story.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” proclaims a next-level brilliance from its opening sequence in which Jimmie and Montgomery speed around San Francisco (Jimmie on his skateboard, Montgomrey sometimes dashing behind him), displaying Talbot’s major league precision in color, editing, motion, and music. It gets a true adrenaline from this filmmaking in its first half, going from one visually stunning scene from the next, introducing a wildly new color palette compared to the last. This is the kind of movie that sucks you in with its vision, that begs to be rewatched in order to savor every shot or strange little item in its production design for various living spaces (like the cluttered home of Danny Glover’s supporting character and grandfather to Montgomery). Talbot quickly announces himself as a filmmaker who actively considers everything going on in a frame, and how to define his characters by their surroundings, and the music that accompanies them (a whimsical Joni Mitchell song over the aggressive Greek chorus of men that talk shit outside Grandpa Allen’s house is probably the best example). All the while, different tones of storytelling are blended—some beats are extremely funny in their dry manner, others are completely heartbreaking—and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” remains consistently gorgeous and unpredictable.
Talbot doesn’t lean on this energy the entire time: the second half is more subdued, spending more time in the house, while getting to know the men internally. It’s a crucial choice, as the film would’ve been exhausting if it went the same speed from start to finish, and it helps the movie go inward, detailing the lives of supporting people like Kofi, a member of that Greek chorus who talks shit about Montgomery and Jimmie being “soft.” In more tender moments, Talbot’s film observes how these men have a friendship that itself is like a peaceful family, a contrast to the lost relationships they have with their own parents.
A pivotal aspect to this story are Jimmie and Montgomery. They’re two gentle friends who are clearly removed from the aggression that’s observed in other black men within this film. They reminded me most of Charlie Brown and Linus from Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” comics: Along with both of them wearing the same clothes in every day, Majors clings his red drawing book like Linus does with his blanket, while being the introspective, philosophical one. They both have a boyish innocence that is striking, a very specific artistic choice in their acting and in storytelling that works as an honest expression on the film’s contrasting portrayals of masculinity.
Talbot displays perhaps his most confidence with his script (co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert), which is simplified to the two men trying to get the house, fill it with themselves, and hold onto it. He wants you to appreciate the magic of the house, the way that light cuts through in different rooms, its ornate detail from start to finish. Even more, he wants you to recognize and love these characters, too. The film’s incredible tension comes from watching Jimmie and Montgomery in this gorgeous city–alongside other larger-than-life individuals–and seeing just how much these men do not have a place in it.
– Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com