The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
“There is no place like home”. Housing is an important but often overlooked topic in films (see my discussion of two notable films about housing here). The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, tells the story of Jimmie Fails (actor playing “himself”), a young man stuck in a series of menial jobs, but dreaming of a better life and still attached to his old childhood home, which is now an expensive Victorian house in an affluent area of San Francisco. His loyal friend and aspiring playwright Montgomery Allen is always ready to offer Jimmie his own place or rather the place of his parents to sleep in, but Jimmy is set only on one thing – to get one particular house which he believes his father built in 1943 and is prepared to do anything to reclaim it. This cinematic debut from Joe Talbot may be an imperfect film, but it has so many distinguishable characteristics and particular eccentricities that it becomes quite impossible to compare it to anything else. Visually-entrancing, The Last Black Man in San Francisco puts the concept of nostalgia, the spirit of ordinary, under-privileged people, their hopes, dreams and rights, as well as one touching friendship, at the very centre of its low-key drama.
It is always fascinating to see cinematic debuts that try to present interesting stories from curious angles. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is definitely one of those films. Talbot actually took Jimmie Fails’s own story as an inspiration for his script which he then co-wrote with Rob Richert. The film was also influenced by Ghost World (2001), another film production about two friends that find themselves on the fringes of society and take one drastic action to make their lives more interesting. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is also about two friends, one is working in a care home and another is “forging a career” at a local fishmongers. Both are unsatisfied with their current social standing, and while one dreams of becoming a famous playwright and probably an artist, another is still living in his past and spends his days hanging around his old childhood home. The film shines with quirkiness, from unusual camera movements to memorable cinematography, and there are definitely broader themes at work here – friction between the past and the present, and the divide between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the under-privileged, and between the black and the white. These themes are viewed through the prism of San Francisco’s atmosphere, architecture and urban development.
It is therefore a pity that some interesting themes and ideas remain undeveloped in this film, while others are presented rather awkwardly, including the film’s environmental message and its message relating to gun violence. There is a distinctive “visual” voice present in this film through which it speaks directly to its audience, but the film’s goal is not crystal clear most of the time and some intriguing concepts introduced remain woefully unexplored. To top it all off, many scenes feel purposely “staged”, and the film does have the intimacy of a theatrically play. This quality seems to correspond directly to where the film is going in its second half.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco does not have a smooth sailing and does not manage to present all of its themes and ideas satisfactorily. However, where it lacks in cohesion and depth, it makes up for in playfulness and unusual presentation. It feels both a deeply current and timeless film which says a lot about our connections to particular places, our devotion to our friends and our occasional inability to put the past behind us. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is still a good debut with both a vision and a heart. 7/10