It’s appropriate that the home at the center of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a Queen Anne Victorian. Meticulously painted, with elaborate trim and a prominent turret, the house is as attention-grabbing as the movie. And both deserve your scrutiny.
A collaboration between writer-star Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot (Rob Richert also has screenplay credit), The Last Black Man in San Francisco is based on Fails’ own experiences. He stars as Jimmie, a San Francisco native with fond memories of growing up in the aforementioned home. Now a young man who has been gentrified out of that house into a lower-rent district of the city, Jimmie and his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) dream of restoring the house to its former beauty and maybe, just maybe, one day living there. When an estate dispute among the home’s owners leave it empty, they see a chance to make their dreams come true.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco belongs to a lineage of whimsical, rabble-rousing, class-conscious independent cinema. There are strains of 2018’s Sorry to Bother You, with its air of revolt; 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, with its affection for an outsider, artistic community; and, above all, the direct-address, socially conscious filmmaking of Spike Lee. The latter is what Talbot’s film most echoes formally, right from its wowza opening. As we witness a literal soapbox speech delivered directly to the camera by a street preacher, bemoaning the fact that the very people who built the city are being squeezed out of it, Talbot’s camera turns to Jimmy and Mont as they hop on Jimmie’s skateboard together and sail down the street. A slow-motion tracking shot from their point of view captures snippets of the sidewalks passing by, offering a visual shorthand for the social stratification of the city.
That skateboard is key. The Last Black Man in San Francisco gives ample attention to one clear class marker: transportation. Without a car, Jimmie and Mont must either share that skateboard (a lovely image of their oddball friendship), sneak rides on the back of delivery trucks, or wait at a stop for a bus that never arrives. Famously a city of hills, San Francisco is more segregated than most by the ability to own an automobile; that’s why an extreme long shot of Jimmie zigzagging down a rolling thoroughfare on his board is not only poetry in motion, but also a social statement.
For all its pointed critique, The Last Black Man in San Francisco also offers a fair amount of whimsy. At the heart of Jimmie and Mont’s friendship is an appreciation for the artistic. Indeed, Mont is an artist: an observer, a filterer of others’ experiences, an agitator if need be. When a group of bickering young men on his street nearly come to blows, Mont walks up to them and begins to direct their “performances.” Later, their interactions are a crucial part of a DIY, Max Fischer-style play that Mont stages. When Jimmie questions his interest in these seeming thugs, especially after they’ve routinely heaped verbal abuse on him, Mont’s reasoning has a divine grace to it: “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them because they’re mean to me?”
Majors, who has a few previous screen credits, brings a nobility and credibility to a tricky part (Mont is tuned in to his own frequency, but never naive). Meanwhile, Fails—in his screen debut—holds his own in the slightly larger role. Stealing the two or so scenes he’s in is Rob Morgan (Mudbound) as Jimmie’s duplicitous dad. And I enjoyed Mike Epps in a cameo as a neighborhood acquaintance who now lives in Jimmie’s old car. He’s funny, of course, but also gets a poignant moment, while parked along a lonely wharf, where he pulls curtains across the driver’s side window for the night, gunshots going off somewhere nearby.
That image serves as “world-building,” a phrase most often applied to the fantasy genre. But that’s what Talbot and Fails have done here: they’ve created a distinct sense of place with their words, their images, and also with the music on the exceedingly eclectic soundtrack, which includes snippets from street performers. The highlight is a cover of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” written by the film’s composer, Emile Mosseri, Talbot, and Daniel Herskedal. With searing vocals by Mike Marshall and a throbbing tuba, the song has echoes of the portentous score to Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like Beasts, The Last Black Man in San Francisco creates a different sort of fractured, fairy-tale world, one that sits somewhere between the place we want to live, the place only some of us are allowed to live in, and the place where we all belong.