Movie Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco
By Matthew Huntley
June 26, 2019
“People are more than one thing,” so says one of the characters in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” He’s right, and even though it’s easy for us to see others as multi-faceted, it’s more difficult to view ourselves the same way. We tend to gravitate toward the idea we’re simple, singular, and uncomplicated, perhaps because this approach makes it easier for us to focus and concentrate on just the one or two qualities we think make us who we are. But such a narrow definition of ourselves isn’t so much the truth as it is a defense mechanism against our innate fear of trying to live up to something greater, which could result in failure.
The idea of striking a balance between who we really are and what we’re expected to be is something the makers of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” have thought long and hard about, because this universal, complex aspect of the human condition is the beating heart of their film, a rich, tragic, and inspirational coming-of-age drama that’s so powerful it’s hard to express its value in mere written words. This is kind of film that not only incites but practically requires conversation to be fully appreciated. In other words, it’s the best kind of film.
And it’s not just its compelling story and characters that make it indelible, but also its visuals. It has a raw, urban backdrop that’s piercing and tactile. Director Joe Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra show us a bleak, unromantic San Francisco—the “dirty” side if you will. And indeed, it opens with a young, African American girl skipping along the sidewalk and coming face to face with a man in a Hazmat suit, who’s nonchalantly picking up what we presume to be contaminated garbage. The girl isn’t wearing a mask though, and a self-proclaimed street preacher (Willie Hen), standing in front of the polluted bay, shouts this injustice to passersby, who all but ignore him. He’s crying out against the obvious gentrification and social inequality taking place in the city and how it’s displacing black people from neighborhoods that have traditionally been mixed.
Two individuals within ear shot of the preacher’s proclamations are the story’s central characters: Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend, Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors). In addition to being mid-20s African American men, Jimmie and Mont stand out because they don’t subscribe to the stereotypical “black” image. Fails dresses “like a white boy” according to his father, donning a black snow cap, red and black flannel shirt, Adidas indoor soccer shoes, and tan khakis. His offbeat and somewhat dated accoutrements, combined with the fact his skateboard is his primary mode of transportation, make him a traitor and punchline to a group of local black gangbangers, who practically brag about their more conscious effort to “act black.” They also make Mont, who sports a suit jacket, sweaters, corduroys, and wing tips, the object of ridicule, labeling him effeminate and gay.
While Jimmie and Mont may not have the most keen sense of fashion, they’re certainly not without ambition. Both work traditional jobs — Jimmie as a caregiver at a nursing home, Mont at a butcher shop — but their real passion is making art, drawing inspiration from their surroundings. Every day, they skate around the city, observing it, absorbing it, mentally recording its happenings and ever-changing fabric. Both grew up in San Francisco and know it well.
Their destination is always the same: an old Victorian house in the once diverse but now mostly white Fillmore District. The multi-story structure, with its glorious arches, stained glass windows, “witch’s hat” roof, upper and lower level patios, and decorative wood work was once Jimmie’s childhood home and supposedly built by Jimmie’s grandfather during World War II after several Japanese families were relocated to internment camps. It’s now occupied by an older white couple, but this doesn’t stop Jimmie from forcing his way onto the property to clean and care for it in any area where the white occupants have neglected it. On any given day, he brings his own tools and supplies to fix things up, even though the residential woman (Maximilienne Ewalt) threatens to call the cops.
Why does Jimmie go to such seemingly inconsequential trouble? Because the house is his canvas and he feels an obligation to restore its beauty, especially since he spent the better part of his young adulthood homeless, living in and out of group homes and his car, which is now driven around by Bobby (Mike Epps), who tries to hide his own loneliness with insults and jokes.
Jimmie is proud that his grandfather, who was supposedly the first black man in San Francisco, built such an impressive estate with his own two hands and he’s now determined to get it back and make it his own.
Mont, meanwhile, who’s slightly naïve about life, is willing to help Jimmie out and entertain his ambitious notions, but deep down he thinks his friend may be in over his head. Then again, Mont may be too, but he’s just as dedicated to his own artistic goals. His passion is capturing life by drawing random scenes in his notebook and writing and directing plays. He has one script he’s been working on with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover), with whom he and Jimmie live, but upcoming events will change Mont’s point of view and give him a different idea entirely.
The details of those events, I leave for you to discover, but they happen amidst Jimmie and Mont finding themselves inside the Victorian house. They don’t so much as squat in it but simply see it as theirs, furnishing it with Jimmie’s grandfather’s belongings that he picks up from his saucy Aunt Wanda (memorably played by Tichina Arnold).
Soon enough, Jimmie and Mont are inviting people over and introducing themselves to their white neighbors, all while we question whether or not Jimmie really believes he’ll be able to sell himself as the owner. He runs into a couple hurdles, including a big shot white realtor (Finn Wittrock), a character who remains the film’s only misstep because it paints him in such a shallow, one-dimensional way. The screenplay by Talbot and Rob Richert, which is deeply touching and profound in all other aspects, makes it all to clear the realtor is just a rich, heartless, corporate money-grabber, with an expensive phone, fancy clothes, and standing electronic desk. Because the other characters are so human and believable, to suddenly watch such a cartoonish figure was a distraction and Talbot and Richert should have developed him more credibly instead of carving him out of stereotypes, which is ironic since it’s stereotyping the film mounts itself against.
Jimmie’s other confrontation is with his estranged father (Rob Morgan), a cynical hustler who, on the outside, lashes out at his son because he doesn’t think he should be trying to take back something that isn’t his, but deep down it’s because he’s jealous of Jimmie for having the gumption to create something meaningful in his life that doesn’t come quickly or easily.
Over time, the meaning Jimmie seeks is felt and shared by us, and his and Mont’s aspirations, along with their feelings of excitement, anger, frustration, sadness, and eventually absolution, become our own. The film’s greatest achievement is the way it gets us to empathize with its characters, and what’s interesting is this effect isn’t immediate. In fact, the first third of “The Last Black Man…” may have you have wondering what it’s even about since its plot is not of the traditional sort, where event A leads to event B and so on and so forth. There are no contrived machinations.
Rather, in a seemingly random way, it brutally and honestly shows a particular group of people in a particular city struggling to find themselves as they face uncertainties about life’s core foundations, like having a place to call home. And even though the characters and their journeys are unique, what makes them accessible to us is they boil down to the universal human need to find purpose and feel a sense of belonging.
In a way, “The Last Black Man…” is a manifestation of life itself, which can be a rollercoaster of both hope and despair, harsh reality and fanciful notions, happiness and despondency. Talbot and Richert’s screenplay is based on an original story by Talbot and Fails, who were childhood friends and actually grew up in San Francisco. The events in the film are loosely based on Fails’ real life, which no doubt added to the film’s painful truth about social disparities. But whether it’s based on fact or not is beside the point. What matters is the film alive and its story is always surprising us by not adhering to predictable or crowd-pleasing developments. It continually adds unexpected layers that stir us emotionally and imaginatively the way few films do.
As for the ending, I’ll only say it touched me in a way that it’s simply ineffable. After all that happens in “The Last Black Man…,” when Jimmie finally realizes what has to be done, it’s one of the most beautiful, subtle, peaceful moments I’ve experienced during any film in recent memory. All I’ll mention is it contains a shot of the Bay, and at this moment, I felt like my heart was going to leap out of my chest. I know what you’re thinking: what does that mean? I can’t explain it in writing, but I think I can in conversation, and this film encourages us to have many.