The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Review) – An Ode to friendship, place and loss

There are few films in modern cinema that exude their brilliance within the first 10 minutes. But in a similar vein to Barry Jenkins ‘If Beale Street Could Talk‘. The Last Black Man in San Francisco grabs your heart and soul from the start. The vibrant cinematography dovetailing with a sublime score, its characters rich in belonging, emotion and depth.

Winner of the Grand Jury prize at this years Sundance Film Festival. Joe Talbot’s debut feature film shines with poetic beauty. An ode to friendship, love and loss combining with a love letter to San Francisco. Its exploration of male friendship, race and belonging in a changing city layered with both sadness and joy in equal measure.

Loosely based on the real life story of Jimmie Fails and his friendship with director Joe Talbot. The film uses Jimmie’s experiences while also placing him into the role of playing himself. A brave and bold move, that works beautifully. The emotional honesty of Jimmie and his passions translating to the screen. Talbot, structuring a love letter to their lifelong friendship through the film’s intimate direction .

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) lives alongside his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). Both sharing a small single room in Montgomery’s grandfathers (Danny Glover) house. Both men born and raised in San Francisco, yet isolated and alone as the city changes. Its poor population moved further and further from the gentrification of the changing city. It’s once thriving black neighbourhoods forgotten and pushed to the outskirts. Both Jimmie and Montgomery buzzing with a deep love for their city. While also becoming every more separate from its changing culture and development. A familiar picture of the urban change and social cleansing happening in cities across the world.

Montgomery, draws and collects the lives and stories of young black men who hang around his neighbourhood. His behaviour alien to the young men he observes. His artistic impulses connecting with a child like innocence as he monitors the isolation, culture and language of their lives. While Jimmie works as a care assistant, longing to return to the house of his childhood. A beautiful and stately gothic Victorian style house in the Fillmore District. A district once known as the Harlem of San Francisco. Its beauty now a playground for the cities rich.

Despite the gothic style of the house, Jimmie knows his grandfather built it in 1946; The First Black Man in San Francisco. Jimmie’s family forced to leave the house as the neighbourhood changed; Jimmie’s soul still residing in its oak panelled rooms, his childhood and adult memories converging. His passion to move back leading him to spend time painting its windows and tending its garden. The couple who own the house both bemused and frustrated by Jimmie’s interest and care.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (A24 2019)

When the house becomes vacant, Jimmie seizes the initiative, illegally moving in with Montgomery in tow. The two men finally living a life they could only dream of, once again part of the city they have felt separated from. However, no dreams last forever, and as the house goes up for sale for 3 million dollars. Reality cuts through their dreams as loss, love and belonging converge.

For a debut feature Talbot’s love of the story and the city surrounding it shines. Each scene a photographic study, with a fairy tale innocence combining with social commentary to create a stunning visual journey. Scenes between Jimmie and Montgomery in the domestic bliss of the house ooze a sense of escape. The dream like imagery mixing with the joy and imagination of children exploring a new den. While the bohemian culture of San Francisco pervades the whole film; a city where artistic expression can be never be completely erased by increasing segregation.

The relationship between Jimmie and Montgomery a deep and enduring brotherly love. Embracing the ability of men to build emotional and loving friendships, while challenging damaging stereotypes of masculinity. Both Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors giving performances full of heart and soul, their characters glowing with love, affection and a need for belonging.

Equally the young black men who hang around streets, while engaging in constant arguments and in-fighting, love, care and protect each other. Their lives joined by a need to protect their cultural place in a city of social extremes and limited opportunity.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco radiates style, sincerity and love. Finding a place in your heart with its dreamy visuals, beautiful sound and cutting social commentary. Providing a portrait of diversity, belonging and dreams. In a modern world where money often comes before passion, creativity and love. The legacy and history of the people and cultures that built a city intrinsic to the survival of a cities vibrance and soul.

Director: Joe Talbot.

Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Willie Hen.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is showing at the BFI London Film Festival from Friday 4th October 2019.