We shouldn’t forget about ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

I saw Joe Talbot’s directorial debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco about three months ago.  It was a Sundance award-winner with rave reviews, an A24 darling, and high on my list of 2019 movies I needed to watch on the big screen. I saw it on opening weekend, which was a limited release to seven theaters. My theater was filled, not packed. If it was a salad, we amounted to the croutons, not the lettuce.

What transpired over the course of the next 121 minutes left me speechless. There are several reasons a movie can transfix you. The acting can be spectacular. The cinematography can be sweeping and beautiful, finding angles you thought impossible. The story can resonate with depth that didn’t previously reside within your body. Or you can see art in a way you haven’t seen before. Talbot’s film accomplished all the above.

The 2-hour affair chronicles the futile attempts of Jimmie Fails, played by Talbot’s childhood friend and co-writer, the real-life Jimmie Fails. Both men grew up in San Francisco, soaking up the Bay Area’s gentrification even when they wished the fog would roll over the sunshine. The story is their collected experiences: their love towards a hometown and their uncertainty towards its unstoppable changes. It’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of art I’ve ever seen, and the shot of Fails dropping leaves onto Mont remains etched into my brain. Fails’ singular mission, though, unfolds like clothes thrown into the wash, locked, messy, and jumbled together with a speed that doesn’t allow your eyes to adjust.

Fails and his best friend Mont, played or rather achieved by Jonathan Majors, are in a movie-long tug-of-war to take back Fails’ childhood home, the one he believes was built by his grandfather, a Victorian mishmash of beauty in the Mission District of San Francisco. Fails’ effectiveness can’t be understated, as every scene has the feeling of a home-video, watched by an intrusive audience. There’s a power in telling your own story, a command that is rarely on display and hardly considered for opportunity.

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Currently, the film festival season is in full swing. Toronto, Venice and Telluride, along with NYFF later this month, have been vehicles for new films to garner widespread praise, gravitate performances to create Oscar-buzz, and shift the discussion to a select few directors and stories that the film community have deemed important. Last Black Man has been put in the back of the pantry, and to me, that’s a problem.

The relevance of these characters is not forced, but given to the audience. The effect of change emanated from this portrait of a hometown continues to cause me to stop on busy streets in New York City, just to remember to look at what surrounds me. I watched this film from a different state than my hometown, from a different state than my family and friends. I grew up driving up the coast to San Francisco, spending weekends there through college, appreciating the city more with each visit. It’s a painstaking painting of a city that’s been in flux for the entire 21st century.

Fails and Talbot spent close to a decade making this film. Their journey as filmmakers is as worthy of praise as their finished product. Every interview they give is inspiring for those that don’t have it all figured out. They’ve certainly become indie idols for young people across the country, especially those in the Bay Area.

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I’ve never watched a film that encapsulates loss like Last Black Man. As Jimmie’s frustrations burst and fester, the realization of pain and loss we’ve encountered grows stronger in each of us. It’s unshakable and for me, undeniable. It captures the emotion and realization we normally can’t put into words: when you don’t recognize your hometown, you don’t remember the roads, and your childhood home, full of the memories you made, belongs to another. The city, his home, has changed without Jimmie Fails. We’ve all been outgrown in our lives, unable to stop natural forces, unable to understand what went wrong, and desperately reaching to conjure up the past.

Jonathan Majors, as the feeble yet loving Montgomery Allen, deserves words of praise at this point. He deserved it much higher in article. Majors is remarkable, and is worthy, though not likely to be recognized, of a Best Supporting Actor nod by the Academy. His presence almost steals the movie from Fails, and it feels to be his hometown as well. He doesn’t fit in, either, and that’s what drew me to him. While Fails shows us what happens when you don’t fit into your city, Majors shows us, with immeasurable grace and ingenuity, what happens when you don’t fit into your community.

The supporting cast, Danny Glover particularly, are worthwhile in contributing to the mood of the film. An ensemble, with this many newcomers, with this talent is a feat in casting, directing, and pure opportunity. The dialogue is smart and a couple of lines are sure to be remembered by all who see the film. The chief of these being said by Fails to two griping (and new) San Francisco residents. “You can’t hate something if you didn’t love it first.” Truer words are sparsely spoken without an element of insincerity.

As big budget films with big budget actors shove into your timelines and into the larger public sphere, don’t forget about Talbot’s tale of loss. Don’t forget about Fails’ and Major’s human performances. And certainly don’t forget the way The Last Black Man in San Francisco made you feel. It’s one of the warmest love letters written this century.  It will and should last longer than the rest.

It certainly has the heart.

★★★★