The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Poetic and profound, Joe Talbot’s feature debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells a story of an ever-changing city where waves of gentrification have for generations defined just who gets to call the city home.
Working with collaborator Jimmie Fails, who plays a heightened version of himself, this is a moving, rich story that explicitly argues that only those who love a thing can be the ones to truly find fault and fight for change.
A warm tale of friendship more than a mere political screed, the film has a kind of wistfulness that’s inviting. We meet Jimmie as he maintains, uninvited, the outer appearance of a gorgeous mansion. Joined by his friend, the fishmonger/playwright Prentice (Jonathan Majors), the two sneak in to give coats of paint to the home that Jimmie was raised in, one that has the sweat of his grandfather leeched into the wood due to the hard work of putting it all together. The two then skateboard off together, the tightness and ease of their friendship obvious.
This central conceit – where the house acts as both an anchor to the community and a reflection of a changing demographic – leads the film through a series of examinations of this storied city. The narrative reflects on identity in many forms: What makes a home? What defines a city? How is a black man supposed to act, to dress, to behave, to dream when forces are fighting to keep him on a particular path? These existential elements raise the film up, tying the dynamic between Prentice and Jimmie to far larger themes.
As the film grows increasing theatrical, it loses some of its effectiveness and focus on what at the outset is an extremely engaging introduction to the characters. The points become less subtle and more overt, and the ideas are hammered home with increasing intensity. It’s a first film, so the sprawling last act can be forgiven, but one can’t help but think that a tauter execution would better serve this important story.
Narrative issues aside, there’s still so much to admire about The Last Black Man in San Francisco, starting with the engaging performances and beautiful visuals. This truly is a love story, between friends and a broken city in need of repair. The issues raised are ones far too often swept away. It’s a film that challenges expectations, demands attention, and proves unequivocally that Joe Talbot and his collaborators are talents to watch.