Film Review: Last Black Man in San Francisco
By Erik Nielsen
In the true to life story of Jimmy Fails, the man who co-authored the script and stars in the lead role as himself, Last Black Man in San Francisco is a love letter to a way of life; a way to find your place in the world; and a fight against the people who want to take it from you. With director Joe Talbot, the two have crafted a truly unique cinematic offering of a city that, like so many, is undergoing gentrification and what that means for the former inhabitants who have to deal with the repercussions of losing their home.
Jimmy and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) are creatives that skate and traverse the layered landscape of San Francisco together. They have working class jobs that might’ve secured a safe living space 30 years ago, but today, they find themselves in Montgomery’s grandpa’s (an immaculate Danny Glover) garage. It’s tight, but the two have a bond that allows them to endure what could be suffocating for most. Once a week, the two visit Jimmy’s grandfather’s old Victorian house that he built after the Second World War. His grandfather, who built the house because he didn't want to take homes away from the Japanese who were in internment camps, is known as the “the first black man in San Francisco”. In an attempt to fend off gentrifiers and a greedy real estate agent (Finn Wittrock), the two inhabit the house secretly and scheme to get their name on the house deed. The fight for the house is not only of reclaiming Jimmy’s identity, but also an attempt to call someplace home, especially since it’s been in his families name for 75 years.
The film’s frames are gorgeous and delicately crafted with nuances and subtleties. I could’ve lived inside of them for hours. Floating through the divine interiors of Fails’ Victorian household, it begins to feel like an escapists paradise where they could lay in eternity. Talbot also shows incredible restraint as he’s not afraid to linger on the faces and meditate on the light that enshrouds our characters - perfectly framing them so they are indeed occupying their own space - reinforcing the idea that people need a place to call home. The film also, feels like it belongs to another time. The way the characters are lit and look at us through the screen reminded me of early silent cinema. It could’ve been absent of all dialogue and still gotten its message across.
The cast is just as memorable but the real breakout performance comes from Jonathan Majors who is nothing short of revelatory as a would-be playwright. He watches his neighbors or what he might call his characters, the nearby inhabitants, the would-be panhandlers, the hipsters and embodies their existence. He walks around like them, talks like them, interrogates his own identity in the mirror--all to figure out how they could fit into the one-man-play he plans on staging.
This film has a lot on its mind but the central idea holding it together is about finding a home and a place to belong to. But also, the opposite concept of accepting object impermanence, as one of the characters (avoiding spoilers) puts it, “You don’t own shit in this world Jimmy”. It’s a struggle and our characters’ plight and journey is one that’s easily identifiable because of its socio-political implications, and also the emotional. I loved this film and plan on seeing it many times over.