Do you love your city? This is a question Jimmie Fails asks two white city transplants on a bus during the third act of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A dogged hero who is romantic to a fault, Jimmie is the eponymous African American who has seen one setback after another in achieving his dream of reclaiming his grandfather’s historic Frisco home on a hill. Disillusioned but not depressed, Jimmie cannot fathom why these two relatively affluent young women are complaining about how much they hate this overpriced town. You cannot hate a place unless you love it.
It is for that reason there is nothing but love, even in its bitterest and most melancholic shadings, that comes through in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A lyrical note of endearment to the Golden City, and one filled with words of anguish and betrayal too, the film is a revelation for director Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails—both the real man and the character of the same name Fails portrays onscreen. For rarely does a first-time feature so articulately examine the pain of the lies we tell ourselves, and the fragility of an identity tied to a place that no longer exists.
An allegorical interpretation of Fails’ own life, Last Black Man opens on a startling image of a young girl of color while on her way to school. She’s smiling at a man in a hazmat suit. In the black neighborhood where Jimmie lives (on the floor of his best friend’s bedroom), the only white people around are those who come with protective gear to clean the filthy bay water. Jimmie and his people have been literally pushed so far out of the city that all that’s left is the edge of toxic waste. Yet Jimmie is not upset. When he and struggling playwright pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) aren’t sitting on the couch with Montgomery’s grandpa (Danny Glover), they’re visiting what Jimmie knows is his birthright.
An old Victorian rising above a stone wall on Golden Gate Avenue, it is for the home his grandfather built after the Second World War, and his father lost when he was a child, that Jimmie pines after. Viewed as a monument to the sweat and tears of a long lost black population in the now exceedingly gentrified playground of millionaires and billionaires, the house is photographed with the reverence of a cathedral by Talbot’s camera, and to Jimmie it is definitely holy ground that he often volunteers to consecrate with nigh daily exterior renovations—much to the annoyance of the otherwise kind white couple who owns the house. Fortunately, providence intervenes one day when this same couple loses the home due to an estate dispute with relatives. Seizing an opportunity, Jimmie and Montgomery move into the house without purchasing it, attempting to squat in the space before anyone knows it could even be on the market. One piece of furniture at a time, Jimmie will make this home the last refuge of blackness in the city that has thrown his people away.
The Last Black Man is clearly based on Fails’ own biography, with the star also credited as co-writing the story (the screenplay is by Talbot and Rob Richert), but the beauty of the film is that it unspools its vision of the Bay like a nostalgic musing on a dream half-forgotten. Leaning into blunt essayist filmmaking with actors monologuing directly into the camera, Talbot at times emulates filmmakers like Spike Lee, yet adds his own textured wrinkle. Tracking shots of Jimmie rocketing down an urban highland on his skateboard, or a montage of Jimmie’s final restorations of the house being juxtaposed to a homeless man singing a soulful version of John Phillips’ “San Francisco,” creates a hypnotic allure for a time and place that is of mythical importance.
This is because the self-mythology Jimmie has for his family’s paradise lost can be intoxicating. The scene in which he first enters the home as an adult is a giddy transcendence after sequences of him visiting his relatives scattered to the winds around northern California: his aunt (Tichina Arnold) lives in a virtual desert wasteland; his father (Rob Morgan) still works scams in a rat hole apartment and has no desire of hearing about the Eden he let get away; and Jimmie’s childhood friend from a group home, Kofi (Jamal Trulove), stands on the same corner every day talking shit to anyone who passes, including Jimmie. Especially Jimmie.
The tragedy of gentrification takes on an operatic status in Talbot’s mise en scène, contrasting idyllic cityscapes with post-apocalyptic iconography, yet the film’s humanity and morality is messier than the broad strokes might suggest. As the center of the film, Fails portrays himself as a doomed hero that will never stop reaching, and indeed conveys an earnest passion that is a little too tangible to simply be acting. But the heart of the film is the soulful Majors as the second half of a quixotic friendship.
Initially the film presents Jimmie and Montgomery’s co-dependency as an enigma that subverts expectations about inner-city life onscreen. Both characters view Kofi and his fellow members of a credited “Greek Chorus,” who sit on the street running their mouths, with curiosity and disappointment. However, there is more than surface judgement in how Montgomery interprets his surroundings, be it in the city’s boondocks or atop Jimmie’s tower. He is the true Greek Chorus of the film, internalizing this world while scribbling on his pages at on a dock—literally pushed to the edge of this civilization—and offering revelations that recontextualize why we fight battles that are already lost.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a mournful and celebratory experience, one that embraces the need for a history in order to find a future, but still remains acutely aware of the danger of self-delusion. Like an epic poem, it imagines life as a struggle between hubris and identity, love and hate. It is an immense achievement that was the best offering at Sundance this year, and it will be talked about throughout the rest of 2019 too.
This review was originally published on Feb. 4.