It’s rare to hear a commercial audience cheer at the end of a drama, but that’s exactly what happened at my screening of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. To be sure, the film deserves an enthusiastic reaction. It’s gorgeously shot, with the cinematic flourishes you only see from a filmmaker with an innate understanding of the medium. But it’s the smaller moments—movie night with a blind father, a chance encounter with an estranged mother, friends who grew apart briefly finding each other again—that give this film life. And it does feel wonderfully alive, while not ignoring the complexities of the story it’s trying to tell.
It doesn’t start out complex, though. The Last Black Man in San Francisco builds to it from a simple story of a young man named Jimmie Fails (played by the director’s childhood friend and co-story creator) who travels with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) to the house he grew up in for regular upkeep. Painting. Gardening. Anything to make this house he loves look as great as he feels it should. This in spite of an older, upper middle-class white couple who now resides in the home. On one trip, Jimmie discovers that a family dispute has left the house empty, giving him the chance to break in and start living there once again.
Director Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’s story is the kind Sean Baker would tell, and like Baker’s films, The Last Black Man in San Francisco weaves in the complicated lives of San Francisco’s forgotten people. It’s a film that starts with gentrification but then wades into the muddy waters of black identity and masculinity and their intersection with the realities of urban poverty in a rapidly changing city.
The Bay Area has become ground zero for these types of stories. From Blindspotting to Sorry to Bother You to Fruitvale Station, the narratives born out of this part of the country represent the most present issues of our time: racism, classism, and wealth inequality. What Talbot and his filmmaking team do here isn’t wholly unique, but his Barry Jenkins-esque cinematic style combined with the street-level view of Spike Lee, make the experience that much more interesting.
I found myself wanting to go where Talbot took me, despite the somewhat roundabout way he gets us there. Fails, who is one of the men who came up with the concept for the film, is entirely emotionally dedicated to this story, even when his character is aloof or pensive. But it’s Majors who, as Montgomery, is essential to letting us know that this isn’t just Jimmie’s story. Majors is a mysterious force in the film, playing his role with equal parts sorrow, exuberance and hope. The most complicated emotions and experiences emanate from his character, and the film often operates as if it’s Montgomery’s brain that is pouring out on screen, not Jimmie’s.
The film crescendos when Montgomery’s manic creativity comes out as a play, one that presents another one of the films themes: How do you properly mourn the death of something? In his play, it’s a person. In the film, it’s a place. One of the closing scenes sees Jimmie confront two white women (one played by Thora Birch) on a bus who suggest that San Francisco, well, sucks. They haven’t lived there long. They’re essentially tourists, looking for their next cool spot (East LA?). Jimmie tells them they can’t hate something unless they love it. It’s a good line but feels like an obvious moment in an otherwise enjoyably elusive film. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is most satisfying when we let the people, the place, and the story envelope us in its own rapturously cinematic, yet quiet and delicate way.