Review: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

“You can’t hate a place unless you love it.”

Those words, spoken by Jimmie Fails toward the end of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” perfectly sum up the film as a portrait of gentrification in a rapidly changing city.  Fails plays himself in this semi-autobiographical story that was written by Fails and Joe Talbot, who also directs it, the two having conceived it when they were teenagers.  The resulting movie is a true labor of love, a two hour feast for the eyes consisting of scenes of everyday life as a young African American man struggles to find home.

One of the core components of the film is the strong friendship between Jimmie and Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring artist and writer.  Jimmie’s father built a gorgeous Victorian style home in 1940s San Francisco, but his family lost it when he was a child.  Now, he spends much of his time off sneaking around the house when the older white couple who now owns it aren’t home, trying to fix up the exterior where they have been neglecting it.  In the meantime, it lives in a small home that sits on a dirty section of the bay with Mont and his grandpa (Danny Glover).  But when a family matter causes the couple to move out of the house, Jimmie sees his chance to reclaim his family home.

The San Francisco home Jimmie Fails longs to retake for his family

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is poignant, funny, and heart-wrenching, and meaningful—and all of this is evident within the first few minutes of the movie, when we see Jimmie get a croissant thrown at him for painting the trim on one of the house’s windows.  He obviously cares very deeply for the house itself, but as the film progresses, we see that it isn’t so much the house he longs for, but a home.  It is, perhaps, the only true home he ever remembers having.  It’s something to be proud of, and something to give him the sense of belonging he’s missing.  This personal issue for Jimmie is just a microcosm of a much bigger problem hitting San Francisco and other rapidly growing cities like it.  As more business moves into the city, more people (white people, mostly) move into it as well, overtaking neighborhoods that used to be predominantly black, forcing minority groups and those who have lived in the city for generations further and further out.  This movie is a love letter to San Francisco because it doesn’t just depict the city’s uniqueness and beauty; we see a lot of its ugly side as well, but only those who have lived there and love it can appreciate both. 

The film tells its story through stunning cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra, accompanied by a score by Emile Mosseri.  At times, the combination of shots with swelling music borders on pretentious, but for the most part, they work successfully hand-in-hand to make the city as much of a character as the people in the movie.  The lighting is gorgeous, frequently casting its characters in colorful tones of red and green, and the film is stitched together like a freeform poem, allowing the viewer to drift along through the slices of life it depicts.

Mont (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails)

The movie also works because of its cast, namely Fails and Majors, who make us believe the closeness of their friendship from the get-go.  It’s rare to see such an honest and loving portrayal of black male friendship on the big screen, and they win you over immediately while also breaking free from stereotypes.  Both Fails and Majors have amazingly expressive faces that convey so much feeling even when they aren’t speaking, and every scene that they are in together, whether comic, dramatic, or mundane, is a joy.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is one of the best and most moving films of the year, brought to life by a host of fresh talent.  It’s an incredible directorial debut for Talbot, and I can’t wait to see more work from Fails and Majors as well.  San Francisco may not be the city it once was, but that doesn’t make this movie sad, or hopeless.  It’s so good, and so transporting, because it comes from a place of so much love.

Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated R.

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