What would you do if the only place you ever knew decided to leave you behind? That struggle is key in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the deeply personal first feature from co-writer/director Joe Talbot. It's at once a nontraditional romance that sings with the language of a remarkable city, and an expressionistic lament for the past, when its identity was still in tact.
The title character is Jimmie Fails (playing a version of himself), a misfit who stops by his old family home in the Fillmore, periodically, to check up on it. Old white people live there now, but it'll always belong to Jimmie. When the house is suddenly vacated, He and his friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), move in and claim the lives they've imagined in their minds. The lives they deserve.
It is, however, the method with which this humble story unfolds that makes The Last Black Man in San Francisco the most original film of 2019. Fog City natives Talbot and Fails grew up together and imagined this story as teens. They felt out of place, both as friends (Talbot is white and Fails is black) and as San Franciscans as they watched their city become gentrified into cultural obscurity.
It's rare to see soul on display in film. It's an almost impossible thing to accomplish. Yet, Last Black Man does it using every filmmaking tool available. The lensing, editing, score, production design, and costumes all reek of authenticity. This is a film made in San Francisco by San Francisco for San Francisco. And that's only the method. The story rings true as well. It's about home, and friendship, and, existentially, how people connect to where they come from. It's nostalgic and time-worn, like a faded postcard.
Jimmie's love affair with his home must also be understood in context. This is no single-family ranch with a view of CVS. This is a castle, a 19th century Victorian work of art masquerading as a domicile. It is Jimmie's Winterfell, as much a part of his family as his grandfather, who built it years ago. The detail within and without, the work of production designer Jona Tochet and her team, enhances the visual storytelling to religious degrees. The house isn't only something tangible Jimmie can hold onto in a city he can no longer afford. It's his identity as well. Jimmie comes alive in that house like a modern-day Don Quixote. He comes home in every way.
Day to day, Jimmie deals with loss. His home and parents are gone. But he finds some semblance of family with Mont and his blind Grandpa Allen (a legendary Danny Glover), who live in Hunter's Point, formerly a bustling shipyard, and one of the last affordable neighborhoods in the city. Allen used to work the yard ("We built these ships, dredged these canals") along with thousands of other African-American workers decades earlier. But progress spares no man and, as jobs got scarce, people who looked like Allen did too. Last Black Man is the latest Bay Area film (Medicine for Melancholy, Blindspotting, and Sorry to Bother You all yearn for a different reality) to personalize gentrification, and it won't be the last.
The film's political themes are delivered gently, however, compared to its more powerful message of love. "You can't hate it here unless you love it here," Jimmie tells someone near the end of the movie. In that sense, the movie is more an ode to San Francisco than an elegy. The tone is somber, but Talbot enriches the story with unforgettable images and references that amount to an insider's experience. His roots are onscreen for everyone to appreciate. (Locals will see it on a whole other level, however.) Lenser Adam Newport-Berra is also essential to Talbot's vision. Last Black Man is infused with dreamy, beautiful sequences that seem cut from fantasy. Combined with composer Emile Mosseri's music, the movie soars.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is closest in spirit to Beasts of the Southern Wild, another movie about the African-American experience in an increasingly unrecognizable United States. But they are each singular films. That's what connects them most. It takes real perspective to make art like this successfully. The Academy should take notice. Last Black Man only could've come from one place, one friendship, one city. It's a personal vision come to life — something original. And that's what makes a great movie.